The three early one-act plays by O’Neill are moving and naturalistic, not melodramatic as I’ve seen them called elsewhere. In order to find this out, though, one has to look through this production’s useless, arbitrary stylization which has the characters speaking with emotional emphasis but deadpan rhythms. Still, if one sticks it out, one gets a good sense of the atmosphere and feeling of being part of a crew for a merchant ship in the early 20th Century. In the first play, Moon of the Caribees, we’re on shipboard (The Glencairn) anchored off an island in the West Indies. The men are lonely, filling their time with jokes and complaints, but two native girls come aboard with rum hidden in their big sacks and for a brief time sensuality, joy as well as disappointment and anger erupt in a drunken party. In spite of the stilted delivery of the lines, I saw it all — the ship, rendered with a few telling scenic strokes, the repetitiveness of life aboard, the explosive excitement, and, always, the looming, oppressive authority of shipboard rank.
It’s a long night in Bound East for Cardiff, as a crewman whose vitality we came to know in Moon of the Carribees lies dying from an accidental shipboard injury. His mates are giving him what physical and emotional comfort they can as fog circles the ship, the heavy fog a poetic visualization of the state of dying. We not only saw the all-encompassing fog but in a most satisfying way felt and heard the creaking of the boards of the ship.
We’re in a dockside bar in The Long Voyage Home as a young sailor, an innocent among thieves, heading home with his pack of pay from one long voyage is robbed and, the worst of it, shanghaied onto another.
Creative disjunctions have been, in the past, the very essence of The Wooster Group’s vision. The Group holds to a play’s narrative — as in last year’s production, Vieux Carre — while simultaneously undercutting it: there are abrupt breaks and shifts, wacky, anachronistic furniture that skuttles around, tv monitors that may, or may not, be in synch with what’s currently on stage — a myriad of tech devices that violate sentimentality, illusion, and that old gold standard of narrative effectiveness, “suspended disbelief.”
And these stylizations have a point. The tension between our cozy expectations of narrative and the Wooster Group’s willful violations of it keeps us on edge. This Group joins ranks with artists for whom “illusion” of truth or anything else is still illusion — i.e., false. And falsity is not worth an artist’s time. To see, here, in a Wooster Group production a meaningless speech stylization standing in for their usually inventive range of disconnects is disappointing. The collaboration with Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players hasn’t done them any good.
Yet, although one doesn’t necessarily look to O’Neil for a realistic view of a time and place, that’s what we got in these three fine short dramas. And the plays give us glimpses of the O’Neil to come, in the mood poetry, the woman-threat, and intense dramatic scenes, values that — in spite of the idiosyncratic flat stylizations — come through.
Early Plays is at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, through March 11.