REVIEWS OF BOOKS AND PRODUCTIONS
5-7. Three Productions from the Sunny Southwest, reviewed and introduced by Eugene K. Hanson.
It almost appeared as if Southern California were celebrating an O'Neill festival last Fall: three openings of O'Neill plays in as many weeks. But it was only the coincidental closeness of the three productions that was a trifle unusual, for the area is commonly treated to several O'Neill offerings in a typical season, at least one of which is usually professionally produced in one of the Southland's major theatres. Far from most of the playwright's traditional haunts, O'Neill is indeed alive and well and being played in Southern California.
5. Before Breakfast, dir. Barry Bartle. American Theatre Arts Conservatory, Los Angeles.
One doesn't expect to see this slight play--a monologue, really--when there is so much better O'Neill available. Perhaps, in the search for his dramatic roots, the minor and little-known plays are experiencing a sudden surge of popularity. But there was another reason for the ATAC's choice of Breakfast: it fit well, along with Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré, into a program of "bedroom tragedies."
The lines of the play were followed well, but the development of the character of Mrs. Rowland seemed wrong. For all her tongue, unless the audience can feel a certain pathos toward her, the play fails as tragedy, and it is hoped that O'Neill was not just writing a bad joke with Alfred's suicide as the punch line. In turn, the suicide should derive from the tragic and seemingly hopeless context of failure in which Alfred finds himself, and not from a nagging wife. To understand this, and project it successfully, is to redeem the play from an otherwise deadly mediocrity.
The real failure in this production, however, lay in one major change: Alfred was no longer a looming off-stage presence. The single room of O'Neill's text became a divided stage with kitchen and bedroom, and Alfred, massive in build and scruffy in appearance, dragged himself, moaning and mumbling, through the whole play. W. H. Auden wrote, on the occasion of the death of Yeats, "The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living." Surely the words of a playwright are modified in the conceptions of the director, sometimes--as here--with devastating results.
Alfred was given nothing to say; he merely grunted his way through the half-hour--after that first cup of morning coffee, which apparently he needed to start his mumbling. Where distance lends a kind of enchantment in O'Neill's text, Alfred's physical presence merely made for awkwardness. Where his silence in response to the taunts of Mrs. Rowland is understandable in the script, his response of either silence or grunts became unbearable. His presence changed the character from a sensitive, hopeful writer to a loutish bum. (Even the best of men look like the worst of men when drunk!)
Perhaps the director felt the change was an improvement; perhaps he was only answering the need of gore for gore's sake, for audiences that seem to demand visual violence. But he altered the play materially. His treatment of the text raises the question concerning the central character; it was unclear who is the main character of the piece. And, above all, the cleverness of O'Neill's device--the use of Alfred's hand and no more of him--was lost in the production. Nor were the audience permitted to use their imagination, in line with O'Neill's desire to involve the audience in his plays. (E.g., in Where the Cross Is Made, when he hoped the audience would share the characters' madness.)
What may be more unfortunate for the play is that the production introduced on stage melodramatic elements that are not inherent in the text. O'Neill has often been accused of writing melodrama, the same melodrama he rejected in his father's theatre. It may be that O'Neill attempted to keep such elements off the stage when he could not keep them out of his plays. Here the mumbling antics of Alfred brought more melodrama--almost farce--stage center, and O'Neill was the worse for it. Alfred's death, like the death of Don Parritt in Iceman, is best left unseen.
Such tampering with a play raises questions about the validity of changing a text. Surely genuine improvements can be made in almost any play, but maybe such substantial changes ought to be attempted only by an author who is the playwright's better.
6. A Moon for the Misbegotten, dir. Henry Hoffman. McCadden Theatre Company, Los Angeles.
On a crowded stage, in a theatre not quite half the Equity-waiver plan's ninety-nine seat house, a cast of players who were no strangers to Moon made a heroic and largely satisfying attempt at a production of O'Neill's last play. The McCadden is in reality a converted woodshop, intimate almost to the point of discomfort. Yet the production overcame the cramped quarters, offering a commendable rendition of the story of Jim Tyrone's last visit to the Hogan farm.
Salome Jens and Mitchell Ryan first played Josie and Tyrone in the 1968 Circle in the Square production of Moon. In the national tour that followed, they were joined by the McCadden production's Hogan, Stefan Gierasch. For the most part, they still seemed quite comfortable with each other down on the Connecticut farm.
Ms. Jens--like Mary Welch, who had O'Neill's personal blessing for the original production--is not the over-sized, almost "freakish" woman the playwright called for in the text. Aside from possessing Josie's "large, firm breasts," she was far from the near-monstrous. But the voice was Josie's--big, brassy, and capable of commanding all the males who came within her ample range. As might be expected of Josie, Jens was convincingly chaste beneath the poseur's waywardness. She displayed a natural generosity that could never be mistaken for laxness of morals.
As Tyrone, Ryan seemed to have difficulty with an admittedly difficult role, that of an educated, not entirely uncultured man who is a bum. A quality of diffidence characterized the performance; he seemed to show little passion for Josie, as if he couldn't really care for her. Nor did he show much real passion for the bottle. The heights and depths were not there; it was more of a compromising mediocrity. One expects Tyrone to begin dully, then to develop. But in Ryan's playing the development didn't occur.
Phil Hogan received his due as a comic figure, though Gierasch did seem distracted at times, as if he knew the show must go on, and so on he went. And he was often very slow on the uptake, forcing Josie's sentences to trail off where they should have been interrupted. But his Irishness was unmistakable, and he created a Phil the audience could love.
The scene with Harder (played by Jay Donohue) was especially well-acted, with its physical movements effectively coordinated for such a small stage. The play as a whole had good pace, and the humor came through well.
Any successful production of Moon makes one wonder how a disheartening failure in the author's own lifetime could become popular fare today. It may well be that today's audiences--and censors, for that matter--are more able to concentrate on the totality of the play rather than on those things in it which caused censorship problems in the earliest production. While O'Neill probably did not mean to shock, he surely knew the play might have that effect. Today's R- and X-rated audiences can laugh off what might have offended an earlier generation of playgoers. And the distance from the personal life of the playwright might help as well. It is embarrassing to have someone tell of the foul goings-on of his own brother, especially when they also involve his own mother. This could have made earlier audiences uncomfortable, but now that he belongs to the past any such personal element is gone. And perhaps its relation to Long Days Journey Into Night has given audiences a warmer feeling for this play's "old sorrow," a kind of epilogue to the earlier play about the haunted Tyrones.
7. Ah, Wilderness! dir. Martin Benson. South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa.
Southern California's "Broadway" stretches up and down the coast, and Orange County's South Coast Repertory has become very much a part of the Southland's Great White Way. In its eighteenth season, the company is enjoying its fourth year in a new two-theatre complex in Costa Mesa, where its fall production of Ah, Wilderness! was a rousing success.
One thing that production aroused was the delightful realization that O'Neill can still delight audiences and make them laugh heartily. The laughs came easy, as if it had been a modern audience enjoying Neil Simon at his very best. Indeed, the laughter may have come a bit too easily, where humor wasn't intended, as with the use of the words "gay" and "queer." But, no matter, for O'Neill could do no wrong, and the audience laughed just as well at Oscar Wilde's "bigamy" and at the mention of "Hedda." It was as if the situation were appropriate today, and not merely as a 1930's reflection of 1906. This not just a period piece, like Restoration comedy or a Moličre play: it belonged.
It was the director's intention to use the complete original text, avoiding changes and the temptation for short-cuts. The omissions that were made were well-made. No one knows any more what a "Sandow Exerciser" is, and only scholars would understand the reference to The Quintessence of Ibsenism. "Wilbur and Lawrence," apparently the oldest of the five Miller children, are best left unmentioned. And to change Belle's "blow you" to "treat you" is best, else the same wags who chortled at "gay" and "queer" would have stopped the show. But why such arcane terms as "ructions" were retained is a mystery.
Generally, the casting was very good. At first flush Robert Cornthwaite's Nat Miller appeared downright grandfatherly although his acting made him seem younger and decidedly closer to Nat's fifty-seven years. James Gallery as Sid David was certainly a caution; his was a gem of a performance. Essie Miller (Anne Gerety) seemed too tried and trying, only whining after her family rather than really caring. And Irene Arranga as Muriel McComber was too strident, and hardly beautiful enough for Richard to have been willing to give up everything for her love. Joe McNeely's Richard was the perfect combination of growing schoolboy intellect and childhood naiveté. In fact, the production caught that sense of the age of innocence--Richard's youthful innocence and America's own innocence of the period--an innocence O'Neill might have longed for, but surely never knew.
The real pity is that O'Neill could not have found more to laugh at, that he saw life almost totally through the tragedian's eyes. His comedy is so good!
--Eugene K. Hanson
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com