Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Eugene O’Neill

Review | (A Very) Long Day’s Journey Into Night | by Eugene O’Neill | Roundabout Theatre Company

… very long day’s journey …

Long Day’s Journey Into Night has a particular importance and glamour as an autobiographical work by one of America’s greatest playwrights, with the Tyrone family in the play being drawn from Eugene O’Neill’s memories of his own family.  While often called a masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey is a wordy and repetitive play.  For the psychological infighting, love-hate interactions and deceptions to remain compelling for the play’s 3 ¾ hours running time, it needs great actors with psychological depth.  Jessica Lange is effective as the mother but the three male actors are disappointing.

Review | The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill | Directed by Robert Falls | Starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy | Goodman Theatre Production | BAM

… too much truth …

The Iceman Cometh is a great play that anyone interested in theater and literature should have the chance to know. It’s a true classic.

It’s a play about a bunch of “bums” – what daring to write on all counts! Sixteen alcoholics, have-beens and never-will-be’s hang out around Harry Hope’s bar, drowning their disappointments in booze while holding hope – and bolstering each others’ hopes — for a better tomorrow.

Like Jimmy Tomorrow — the down-and-out former newspaper reporter, sure he’ll get back on board the world, have his old typewriter fixed, check in with his old friends, quite the booze and get a good job.  All that will happen … tomorrow.  Cora the streetwalker and Rocky the bartender will get married … tomorrow.  Harry’s is a cozy nest of shared pipe dreams.

And since tomorrow is Harry’s birthday, they’re looking forward to Hickey’s arrival — he’s a successful salesman with a “normal” life,  money, a wife and a home in Queens,  who comes to Harry’s bar twice a year for a long bender.  When Hickey’s around, drinks are on him and the booze flows freely. Hickey with his glad hand and jokes — including a vulgar innuendo about his own wife and the iceman that makes them uncomfortable.  Still, Hickey always brings good times.

But this time, he’s changed.

For one thing, Hickey’s not drinking, though they’re relieved he’s still buying the drinks.  But he’s also gone preachy.  He collars each of them with his message: stop just talking about what you’re going to do tomorrow — do it.  You, Jimmy Tomorrow, spruce up, get out and get a job.  And you, Willie – hit that law buddy you’re always talking about for a job.  Get that circus job back, Ed.  Tie the knot, Cora and Rocky, don’t pretend.

And when tomorrow dawns, they all make the try.  One by one they leave the bar, looking more or less resolute, set to take on the world.  And soon enough they return to the bar, one by one, downcast, their failures demonstrated.  Most of them never made it past sitting out some time on a park bench.

They fail, just as Hickey knew they would., and he’s  exuberant, manically so.  By getting them to try, he’s gotten them to face the truth that they can’t  succeed.  Now, he says, they’re free,  they know for sure they’re nothing more than bums. Their pipe dreams are up in smoke.  But all this “truth” doesn’t have the effect Hickey expected.  Instead, it leaves the denizens of Harry’s bar dulled as the dead.  The laughter, the good feeling, the camaraderie – it’s all over.  Even the liquor loses its kick.

And Hickey’s truth?  It’s a tragic story that he pours forth in  two cascading monologues.  These stunning monologues, and his acting in general, bring up the question of Nathan Lane’s performance: is he effective in the part of Hickey?  I went to this Iceman because I thought he’d be superb as the fast-talking, anguished salesman, but I was disappointed.  He works hard — he punches it out and gives it his all — but he lacks the depth and resonance the part needs.

Brian Dennehy in the role of Larry Slade gives the most powerful performance as a death-fearing, disillusioned anarchist.  In an important sub-plot, he’s bedeviled by a youthful stool pigeon, a wretched remnant from his once hopeful past.

The pacing of the performance is slower than needed so the four and three-quarter hour production begins to feel long — though worth it.

But the direction, and Lane himself, didn’t bring out a signifying moment so important that I’m going to describe it here:

With their illusions destroyed by Hickey’s game, the characters are overcome by depression.  But — the second great monologue — Hickey recounts his personal psychic agony and admits to a crime, and they begin to think, not unreasonably, that he’s insane.  They take heart from that.  He vehemently asserts that he’s freed them, by bringing them all, including himself, to face truth.  But — freeing themselves from Hickey — they reason that if Hickey’s insane, his forcing them to face their failures was the blabber of a madman: now they’re free to drift back into the illusions that keep them alive!

Surrounded by their hopes for escape from brutal truth, Hickey, in a moment of insight, generosity and, probably, survivorship “admits” he’s insane.  As played here, this key growth and change in the central character passes with such understatement that it’s missed – at least those in the audience I spoke with didn’t catch it.  If you go to see the play, watch for it right near the end. It’s a brilliant dramatic moment.

The Iceman Cometh. A monumental play about a bunch of bums: how remarkable!  And producing it is a tour de force.   This able production of a powerful play has impact.

The Iceman Cometh plays at the Harvey Theater of BAM in Brooklyn through March 15, 2015.

Review | A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

A Moon for the Misbegotten is a tense, character driven play that demands  great acting and this excellent production provides it:  Kim Martin-Cotton is as fine an actress as I’ve seen anywhere and she makes the role of the tough-on-the-outside farm girl, Josie Hogan, come alive.

The play, written in 1943, takes us back to a 1923 farmhouse.  Like O’Neill’s earlier play, Beyond the Horizon, currently Irish Repertory Theater, this, too, is about trying to hold on to the farm.  Josie and her father Phil Hogan, are tenant farmers, and their landlord, James Tyrone, Jr., is a local boy who made it in the big city as an actor, and whose self-weary, drunken lack of self-respect leads him to mock his own success.  Josie’s in love with Tyrone, but hides it behind a cynical, sluttish affect.  He claims, in an affected, stentorian way, to love her, but she doesn’t believe a word, comparing her big farm girl self to the dainty women she figures he knows in the city.

Word has it that a rich neighbor has put in a bid to buy the farm from Tyrone, putting the Hogans’ hearth, home and livelihood at risk.  Will Tyrone sell, betraying “his best friend” Phil, and Josie whom, with drunken bathos, he says he loves?  Phil, with his own tough exterior and a wily streak, comes up with a plan.  Thinking he knows what’s best for his daughter better than she does, he concocts for Tyrone and Josie to be together and alone on the farm for a long, moonlit night, throwing them into each other’s arms, for Josie’s happiness and to keep the farm.

Fueled by enough whiskey to make most men pass out, Tyrone pours out the sources in his youth for his haunted nature, and his sense that, actor that he is, he’s a man for effect, capable of faking tears at his mother’s funeral and empty within, having room only for the self-hatred. And after spilling all,Tyrone does end up in Josie’s arms, not in the way Phil intended but asleep across her lap, his head resting on her breasts (which he has much admired), in a late night Pieta.  Awaking at dawn, he feels, for the moment, refreshed and free, having forgotten, it seems, that he has spent the night confessing to Josie the secrets of his guilty soul, the reason he now feels liberated.

So now will Josie and Tyrone live together happily ever after?  Bottom line, he won’t sell the farm out from under the Hogans.

The Moon for the Misbegotten has a driving narrative, and the scenes between the strongly conceived characters are exciting.   I don’t think this play has the unforgettable, mythic stature of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which the Director’s program notes link it to.  Tyrone’s bathetic confessional (which lasts a little long) has the character and content of a pat psychoanalytic catharsis, somewhat dating the play.  Still, throughout we are held by the playwright’s vibrant skill in creating compelling psychological interactions, and by the fine acting that puts them across.

Phil Hogan, played by Dan Daily, seems at first a stock character, a domineering, crude Irishman pushing his children around, but gradually, through this outstanding actor’s timing and subtlety, we come to glimpse the active mind, wit and depth of feeling lurking behind the “drunken Irishman” mask.   The complexity of this character — and the way it sneaks up on you — is one of the great strengths of the play — he does what you don’t expect.

Though not quite fitting the part, Andrew May is able in the demanding and intensely emotional role of James Tyrone, Jr.   Kern McFadden as the business-minded  farmer next door is a stolid foil for Phil Hogan’s rambunctious ridicule in a richly humorous scene that’s a highlight of the play.  Often the lead actor at the Pearl Theatre, Sean McNall is good in a brief turn as the last of the Hogan boys to run away from their over-controlling father.

And Kim Martin-Cotton’s performance as Josie is transcendent, of the kind that it’s hard to see anyone else in the part.  She has a rich speaking voice and very expressive use of her body.  As my companion said, “She’s as good as Meryl Streep.”  (There but for the grace of God … ! )

Moon for the Misbegotten plays at the Pearl Theatre in New York City’s Lincoln Center through  April 15, 2012.

Review | Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill | Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly | Irish Repertory Theatre

While watching Beyond the Horizon, I was often gripped by the strong conflicts in individual scenes.  Yet, the play came across as less than the sum of the parts.

O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for this, his first full-length play (what a personal thrill that must have been!).  The focus on a low class family — farmers brought to struggle to hold on to the farm — the use of American vernacular, and the laying bare of brutal competition within what seems on the surface a wholesome American farm family must have been electrifying at the time.   Without these issues of innovation, today the play has less going for it.

Two brothers love the same girl.  Like his father, the older, Andrew, is a farmer through and through — and an excellent manager.  Rob is his opposite, a poetic dreamer, always with book in hand, who longs to travel the world and has no interest or aptitude for farming.  Both love Ruth, the girl next door.  Rob’s love is unspoken — until the eve of his departure as a sailor on a ship that will take him to all the exotic places he’s been dreaming about.

At that fraught last moment, Ruth seductively draws out of Rob his confession of love and, pouncing on his admission, admits she loves him too, and doesn’t love Andrew who’s been expecting to marry her all along.  The upheaval in the family is huge and the upshot is that nobody does what he’s supposed to do:  Andrew the farmer, filled with bitter, jealous rage, goes to sea while Rob the dreamer of far away places, stays home to marry Ruth and work the farm with his aging father.

Only Rob isn’t very good as a farmer.  He has no aptitude for managing, he’s on the frail side, and anyhow, he’d rather be reading his book, so when the father dies, Rob is left alone to preside fitfully over the slippage into failure of a once prosperous farm.

Rob’s increasingly embittered wife, now a frazzled mother, imagines that Andrew will return to set the farm aright and, assuming Andrew still loves her, will take her over as well.  Andrew does return as a successful man with money in his pocket and big plans for grain deals in Argentina — and no plans for her.  He’s off with the next ship to Argentina.

At the play’s heart are the ways these two very different brothers respond to their true, inner selves.  Rob gives in to his inner nature, unwilling or incapable of transcending it, and so failing in his responsibilities and precipitating tragedy.  Andrew, in contrast, violates his inner nature:  he goes to sea when he should farm;  he becomes a commodities speculator, not growing the food he was born to grow, but growing money, working with “paper” instead of “grain”.   Rob is lost.  There is the possibility that in the tragic aftermath of the play, the immensely able Andrew will regain his true self, and find his way home.

It strikes me as characteristically American that while there are dangers both in giving in too fully to inner nature, and in violating it, competence can pull you through — even spiritually.

It’s interesting to think of O’Neill juggling the parallels and oppositions between Rob and Andrew, but in the play, these contrasts in “inner nature” come across as simplistic.  Of the two, Andrew’s story is the most interesting, but we hear what happens to him indirectly, while we live through life with Rob.  Also, Act II has so many reversals, leave takings, homecomings, and a very lengthy death that it becomes tiresome.  For these reasons, the play as a whole has less staying power in my mind than some of the individual scenes with fiery conflicts of wills.

Part of the reason also is that the play is not well cast.  The actors are not exciting nor convincing, though they work intensely at their characterizations.  There are exceptions among the smaller parts:  David Sitler brings great power to his role as the stern, rigid father in the scene in which he learns that Andrew will be the sea farer and Rob will stay home —  for me the most memorable in the play.  (Too bad he dies and we don’t see more of him.)  Aimee Laurence is touchingly natural as Rob and Ruth’s little girl, caught between an embittered mother and the incompetent father she adores.  Patricia Conolly is amusing as Ruth’s wheel-chair bound mother, the stubbornly healthy invalid, although her patrician speech is out of place.  Although O’Neill intended a naturalistic vernacular, the varied accents among the actors are disunifying, making the characters hard to accept as part of a small, isolated early 20th-century Massachusetts community.  Rob and Andrew are so disparate in all ways, quite aside from the contrasting personalities, that it’s hard to believe they are brothers.

Beyond the Horizon plays at Irish Repertory Theater on Manhattan’s West Side through April 15.

Review | Early Plays, Based on Eugene O’Neill’s Glencairn Plays | Adapted and Directed by Richard Maxwell | Wooster Group / New York City Players

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.

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