Theatre Review: Beautiful Dreamer- Eugene O’Neill in Brooklyn and Chelsea

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Eugene O’Neill

How It’s New York:  Eugene O’Neill (1888 –  1953) was a Broadway baby, born in a Broadway hotel room, and  there are traces of him all over the city.   The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (based in Connecticut, but has offices in NY) nurtures and develops new talent at a highly prestigious retreat every summer.   It’s a very New York thing to see several companies take on the same playwright in the same year, too.  Right now, there’s O’Neill at Irish Repertory Theatre, and at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in a joint production by the Wooster Group and Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players.
How It’s Irish:  O’Neill himself was second-generation Irish– his father James was a famous actor.  He obviously inherited some of the poetry from Dad.  But you don’t have to justify his inclusion at Irish Repertory Theatre by his pedigree alone.  Yearning, melancholy, love of the sea, battle with depression and drink, and the dangerous call of poetry always lurk in his plays.  Often there’s an Irish character around, as there is in the Glencairn plays; the characters in Beyond the Horizon are clearly Irish-American. 

 A version of this review first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, February 28.

Seeing these early works of O’Neill back to back is enlightening in many ways.  But the one not to miss is Ciarán O’Reilly’s luminous production of  Beyond the Horizon at Irish Rep.

THE EARLY PLAYS runs through March 11 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn. BEYOND THE HORIZON runs through April 8 at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. 

Ciarán O’Reilly demonstrates the worthiness of Beyond the Horizon to live in our imaginations:  O’Neill’s affecting play and the tragedy of being what you are.

Eugene O’Neill, In Brooklyn And In Chelsea

It’s not Eugene O’Neill’s fault that he’s been over-lionized as the first original American playwright, or as the genius writer son of an actor with no peers.
He knew better–that he studied playwriting with George Pierce Baker at Harvard, that he worked with Susan Glaspell at the Provincetown Playhouse.
He won four Pulitzer Prizes over his life–the most of any playwright to date. He also won a Nobel Prize. But more than that, he was a true artist, questing, seeking, changing forms, trying things, and looking for truth. He often succeeded. 
Right now, there’s an unusual amount of early O’Neill showing around town.
A few months ago, the New York Neo-Futurists hilariously did their “The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays”, in which Foley artists provided sound effects while actors tried to glare with burning eyes, look voluptuous, etc.  There was no dialogue and none needed.
Conventions in theatre have moved on since O’Neill began writing in 1914.
But productions of that early work show that they still can have tremendous power.
You can see that power more clearly in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of O’Neill’s first Pulitzer Prize-winner, Beyond the Horizon, than in the Early Plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

***

The Wooster Group and New York City Players have joined to present three of O’Neill’s early short plays, from a group known as “The Glencairn Plays,” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. 
The production officially opened on February 22 and closes March 11.
Ari Fliakos, Kate Valk, Jim Fletcher, Lakpa Bhutia and Andrew Schneider(Courtesy of The Wooster Group)
The Wooster Group and the New York City Players are both known for their experimental work.  Here, the experiment mostly consists of non-naturalistic style of acting that points to what would be there rather than allowing the actors to inabit the world
The three plays, “Bound East for Cardiff” (1914), “The Long Voyage Home” (1917), and “The Moon of the Caribbees” (1918) are all about sailors on the Glencairn, drawing from O’Neill’s own experiences as a merchant seaman.
In “The Moon of the Caribbees,” sailors buy contraband rum from two Island women (Kaneza Schaal and Kate Valk), while on the shore natives chant a funeral song. Smitty (Kevin Hurley), one of the sailors is sensitive, a gentleman, with his heart broken. A fight breaks out.
In “Bound East for Cardiff,” Yank (Brian Mendes), a tough sailor we met in the first play has been injured in a fall. His friend Driscoll (Ari Fliakos) stays with him as he dies. 
In “The Long Voyage Home,” Olson (Bobby McElver) a naïve Swedish sailor, is duped by a woman at a bar (Kaneza Schaal), drugged and robbed and dumped on another ship to serve–just when he’d been dreaming about finally getting off the ship and going home for good. 
O’Neill creates a mood in each play, a mood of longing, despair, and yes, humor, in
each play.  To capture the difficulties of communication–and because it was a convention of the time–he also wrote, meticulously, the dialect of each of the sailors, many of whom were non-native speakers of English.
It’s not how dialogue is written today, though. 
Maxwell’s main approach to directing seems to have been to emphasize clarity of words.
But what it seems like, watching, is just archly making fun of the dialect.  It’s too easy to make the audience laugh at Olson saying “Py yingo.” declamatory style, ultimately, did not reveal the words so much as distort them.  The non-acting acting almost seemed to mock the plays–surely not the director’s intent (and at times, some actors fell into more emotional acting anyway). 
All of which is to say, in the end, this evening did not work for me.
In trying to keep things simple and clear, the companies seem to have chosen not to actually do the plays.
Some years ago I saw a production of The Emperor Jones in which all of the stage directions were read, in between dialogue.  This was interesting for about ten minutes.  The Early Plays had a similar effect. Maxwell has written three original songs (there is also a sea shanty built in to the play).The songs are evocative, modern, with lyrics that relate to the plays–but don’t quite connect to them. 
That is my assessment of the evening, also.

***

Wrenn Schmidt, Lucas Hall @Carol Rosegg

Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of “Beyond the Horizon”, on the other hand, is deeply affecting. 

The play runs through April 8. 
O’Neill’s 1920 play established him as a significant writer to the world.
It seldom gets done, and while some of it is a little creaky, director Ciarán O’Reilly demonstrates its worthiness to live in our imaginations. The play ends in mid-sentence. There’s a chance for redemption, but no certainty. 
It tells the story of a young man, who, like many of O’Neill’s characters, has “a touch of the poet” about him. Rob Mayo (Lucas Hall), 23, sickly as a boy, is about to go “beyond the horizon,” and set off to sea with his Uncle Dick (John Thomas Waite).  He’s never going to be much of a farmer anyway, unlike his brother Andy (Rod Brogan), 27, who is his polar opposite but who is also his best friend.
But when Robbie takes leave of Ruth (Wrenn Schmidt), the girl from the farm next door, he lets slip that one of his reasons for going is his love for her.  Turns out, she loves him too (we see this growing on her face before he does, since her back is to him).
She can’t go with him her mother is in a wheelchair.
Since everyone assumed she would marry Andy, including Andy, it’s Andy now who goes instead.  Mr. Mayo (David Sitler) is furious, and declares he’ll never forgive him.
We follow this couple from 1907 – 1916. Things go badly. Rob’s not a farmer, and though he tries, Ruth comes to regret her choice. 
Everyone longs for Andy’s return from sea. So often, people wait for him to come and fix things, that one is tempted to subtitle the play Waiting for Andy, except that unlike Godot, Andy does, ultimately appear (twice, even). 
When Andy briefly returns the first time, four years later, he’s about to go to the Argentine. He reveals that he’s over Ruth–which breaks her heart (his declaration hauntingly echoes, in the way it’s staged, Rob’s in Act One).  In the play’s final act, illness has robbed the couple of nearly everything (one person who survives everyone is, of course, the invalid mother, humorously played by Patricia Connolly). Andy comes back, to Rob’s deathbed. 
What’s “beyond the horizon” is not only mystery, but also death.
There are many things that make the play itself powerful.  One of the strongest is that there is no villain here. There is no banker who wants to shut down the farm, no terrible jealousy to turn brother against brother. There are only people, doing the best they can, getting what they wanted and finding it not enough, changing as life changes them, looking for meaning, dealing with tragedy. 
Watching events unfolded, I was struck by how rarely one sees this dramatized.
Writers are taught to find conflict, and too often, that means an antagonist who wants nothing except to be a pain in the neck to someone else (I’m looking at you, O’Brien and Thomas on Downton Abbey).   O’Neill’s characters, in contrast, are their own worst enemies. Aren’t we all?

Lucas Hall, Rod Brogan @Carol Rosegg

Rob and Andy are both even aware of this. Andy is a born farmer, “as much a part of the land as a tree or an ear of corn,” and his letters from sea are, Rob notices, like “letters from a farmer”–all business, work, practicality. 

Rob is a dreamer, and even when he tries to buckle down and work hard, he can’t get anywhere with it. “It’s just Beauty that’s calling me,” he tried to explain to Andy about wanting to go away.

There’s nobody to hate, and much to ponder. Characters make mistakes, but they come out of their character.   You can’t run from your own nature.  And if your nature is at odds with your situation, you’re in trouble.  You an only be what you are, the play shows us.  The only hope for happiness is in that understanding.

Ruth is a girl with little imagination–it’s easy to see how she would be bowled over by Rob’s way with words early on, and come to hate him for not being more effective once the realities of marriage set in.  She married for love, and wishes she hadn’t. In this, she’s not unlike Min in the Teresa Deevy’s play Temporal Powers, which we reviewed here on August 30. Schmidt was in that play as well, playing not the disappointed Min but the trusting Lizzie.
Some critics might call the play melodramatic, but the play works squarely against that structure in a way that would have seemed modern in 1920–and frankly feels so now.
After the father renounces Andy, you might think we’re being set up for another scene of conflict or reconciliation. But the next scene takes place four years later, after the father has died. 
Johanna Leister , Wrenn Schmidt, Patricia Conolly, Aimee Laurence 

Similarly, when Ruth shrieks at Rob that she’s always loved Andy, you might expect a showdown, or a separation, some kind of development of the triangle.

But there isn’t, at least, not the kind you’d expect in from an evening soap (today’s melodramas, right down to the music telling you how to feel).
When Andy tells her how the little girl is so like her father, you might think you’re being set up for Ruth to kill her. Nope.  And so on. O’Neill also beautifully lets us know how much time has gone by and what has happened in between scenes, without ever resorting to contemporary tricks like “four years later” onstage. The structure and control is impressive. 
There’s no doubt that O’Reilly is an excellent interpreter of O’Neill.
His productions of The Hairy Ape (2006, read my Back Stage review here) and The Emperor Jones (2009, my review for The L Magazine is here) were deservedly lionized for the way they brought out O’Neill’s poetry, subtlety and power. 
O’Reilly, more than any director of O’Neill that I’ve seen, understands how to pace him.

This production is overall slightly less successful than those.  That’s in part because the play has less of a unified tone.  It calls for different styles of acting, a more naturalistic approach (which O’Reilly provides) than in the other two. 
But that there are some flaws in the writing, some missteps in the acting, doesn’t detract from the overall power of the production.  At 3.5 hours, Beyond the Horizon could so easily be a slog. It never feels like one.  He captures the spirit of the time–even its stilted language, in the first scene, when the brothers try to be cheery, knowing they are saying goodbye–without mocking it or succumbing to it. 
And then there are those subtle stage pictures, where we see what’s happening on the characters’ faces, but others with them do not. One picture, of Ruth in a striped dress against Hugh Landwehr’s bleached board flooring, was particularly memorable.
Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios’ costumes not only demonstrated character but also helped create this world.Landwehr also designed the sky backdrop, with big brushstrokes so that the artifice of it can’t be missed.  Musical underscoring by Ryan Rumery has a country twang and melancholy that is somehow American and Irish. 
The cast rise to the heights when the characters do, although Schmidt’s choice to play the entire third act in a depressed monotone worked against the language for me. Still, she’s outstanding in the play’s middle scenes, as a frustrated but still tender woman.
Waite’s plays Uncle Dick as a rather stock sea salt, but the caricature seemed right, structurally.  Leister’s Mrs. Mayo displays smart wryness. And Connolly’s Mrs. Atkins twists the knife with every passive-aggressive remark, earning deserved laughs as the Irish mother from Hell.   Sitler’s 0-60 leap from calm to fury is terrifying. “I know your ways and they’re my ways,” is his desperate cry to his deserting son–whose only way of escape is to insult the thing he loves most, that is, the land.  Aimee Laurence as Ruth and Rob’s sweet little girl is all the more affecting in her sweet tantrums.   Brogan as Andy and Hall as Rob are the play’s heart and soul. Brogan brings every drop of rage, pathos, and indeed, poetry to him. And it’s rare to see the man of action, the practical man, not also be the villain. Rob could easily be insufferable, but Hall infuses him with the right amount of frustration and self-deprecation.
“There I go, dreaming again, my old fool dreams,” he says.
It’s the Irish complaint: the dreaming, oh the dreaming..

It’s in Shaw as well as in O’Neill. And it’s never sadder than here when married to the unrealized American dream. 
THE EARLY PLAYS runs through March 11 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn. BEYOND THE HORIZON runs through April 8 at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street.
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