CARLOTTA TAKES CENTER-STAGE: A REVIEW OF MY GENE
[My Gene, by Barbara Gelb, with Colleen Dewhurst as Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Martinson Hall on January 29, 1987, and closed on March 22. It was directed by Andre Ernotte, with scenery by William Barclay, costumes by Muriel Stockdale, lighting by Phil Monat, and music arranged by Rob Schwimmer.]
Barbara Gelb's new play, My Gene, is a chronicle of recollected images, more real than hallucinatory, that reflects the enigmatic relationship endured by the playwright, Eugene O'Neill, and his third wife, Carlotta Monterey. Gelb, the renowned co-author (with husband Arthur) of the 1962 biography O'Neill, exhumes the playwright through the half-crazed memories of his widow, now incarcerated in the violent ward of St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. Although the premise is a powerful one, the monodrama Gelb has fashioned falls short of its promised impact. As a tour de force commanded by actress Colleen Dewhurst, however, the audience bears witness to a confession it will not easily forget.
The time is November of 1968, some fifteen years after the playwright's death. Moments before the action begins, the audience observes a curtainless set at the center of which is a slightly elevated room, framed by skeletal beams to suggest the claustrophobic dimensions of Carlotta's world. A metal bed, a sink, and a simple dressing table clutter an atmosphere made even gloomier by the monotonous gray tones which predominate. A small apron of playing space, separating the audience from Carlotta's cell, is trimmed with a wooden ramp to suggest an ocean walkway. This borders both right and left sides of the stage, and leads to an elevated upstage deck which overlooks the hospital room. Both sides of the stage are highlighted with rocks and sea grass. The downstage apron is tinged with sand, while a wooden lounge chair, facing center stage, is prominently placed at the downstage right corner. A shadowy image of O'Neill's profile is projected on the center of a wide backdrop. With houselights still up, the mood is enhanced by a soft melody that catches the attention of the audience. This is replaced by a sharp crescendo of crashing waves as the houselights fade. The crescendo ends abruptly in darkness, when the stage lights come up to reveal a tormented Carlotta poised stiffly on her bed.
One can only admire Gelb's daring to dramatize through language and memory the more traumatic highlights of this infamous couple's relationship, to assess O'Neill's life through the eyes of a woman who claimed to have inspired certain characters and events in her husband's plays, and who engineered a revival of his work shortly after his death. "I wanted your reputation restored in my lifetime," she yells at his ghostly presence, as if to seek forgiveness for having disobeyed his wishes by releasing prematurely his play, Long Days Journey Into Night. But when she sneeringly announces, "I am your immortality," there can be no question that Gelb has uncovered a character as stageworthy as any Everywoman O'Neill created.
The monodrama format, often effectively used, reflects a consciousness befitting O'Neill's own dramatic style. Carlotta's reminiscences are directed to a doctor who has entered her room, although he too may be a mere hallucination. He motivates her need to psychodramatize, to settle scores with the past, to prove her sanity and, hopefully, regain her freedom. "Oh yes, he's here! He's always here," she reminds the doctor. Then with a sudden glance toward the downstage lounge chair, she steps out of the hospital frame, connects instantly with the past, and raves at an unseen spouse who seems painfully alive to her. At times the technique recalls O'Neill's early one-act monodrama, Before Breakfast, in which a nagging wife directs cruel outbursts against her off-stage artist husband, with fatal consequences. Above all, the moment conjures Strindberg, and sets a tone that Dewhurst admirably sustains through this solo dance of death.
Gelb has chosen to identify Carlotta with some of the more memorable women in O'Neill's plays. In reality, Carlotta did join the cast of The Hairy Ape, when the O'Neill play moved to Broadway to continue its successful run. Cast as the hypocritical socialite, Mildred Douglas, who insists on viewing the bowels of a cruise ship to see how the lower classes live, she faints at the sight of Yank, the brutish stoker. Apparently things were not much different off-stage, for Carlotta herself was not impressed by the play's unkempt author who practically ignored her at their first meeting and failed to thank her for stepping into the role at such short notice, but who, years later, would teasingly call her "Mildew" Douglas. "It was a love affair from the very beginning," she rapturously confides in us, like a lover who has found her reason to exist.
At this point, Gelb chooses to deconstruct Carlotta's dark night of the soul, through a careful incorporation of fragmentary excerpts from The Hairy Ape, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten and More Stately Mansions, to clarify or embellish specific parallels between O'Neill's life and art. These often memorable lines are effortlessly woven into the fabric of Carlotta's confession to suggest a pathological merging of her own life with stage directions dictated by her spouse. A citation from Strange Interlude, for example, invokes the voracious and multi-dimensional protagonist, Nina Leeds, who plays different roles to the men in her life, as they unfulfillingly respond to her needs. Lest we overlook the explosive connection between stage and real life. Gelb carefully conjoins her Carlotta with Nina, as if it were Carlotta, not Nina, who cynically observes: "Say lie---L-i-i-e! Now say life. L-i-i-f-e! You see! Life is just a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end!"
Mistress, wife, and mother to a powerful literary figure whose life was broken by physical debility and emotional turmoil, Carlotta insidiously reprimands, "You can't live without me." Did O'Neill consciously realize that he had resorted to his marriage with Carlotta to sketch out the characters of James and Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey, because he was too long separated from his parents to recall them accurately? Can we accept that Carlotta quietly coveted the pivotal role of Deborah Harford in A Touch of the Poet, recognizing its need for a great actress and thinking it could mark her return to the professional stage? So Carlotta dives into the wreck, retrieving its ghostly casualties, and discovering what another kindred spirit, Mary Tyrone, once faced: "The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us."
While Gelb's play often succeeds in stirring up some powerful material and giving it chronological shape, the outcome is burdened with details too scrupulously assembled: titles, dates, characters, public and domestic events of a unique marriage, many of which tend to distract rather than inform the audience. What might have been a seamless unraveling of a woman's psyche instead becomes forced and weighed down by lackluster memorabilia. Although such material verifies the biographical content of the work, it often reduces Dewhurst to a mouthpiece. Fortunately, the second half of the two hour evening is less encumbered, and allows the actress some opportunity to build towards a moving finale.
Indeed, the success of this performance rests comfortably in the hands of Dewhurst, whose energy is relentless from start to finish. Fidgeting with shawl, earrings, nail file or hair clip, she darts between present and past events with an intensity and conviction that obscure the limitations of her script. She can find eloquence in the smallest harrowing detail, and turn awkward allusion into stunning revelation. In one uncomfortable piece of stage business, for example, she persuades us that a rag monkey named Esteban, a memento of her husband's seafaring days, is the single worthy offspring of their marriage. "Our own little hairy ape," she reflects matter-of-factly, hugging him tightly and setting him gently to sleep on her pillow. One only wishes that director Andre Ernotte had encouraged some reshaping of this actress's earthy vitality and throaty vocalism to create a more "elitist" protagonist who proudly admits, "I chose the name Carlotta Monterey because it was exotic and suited my looks." Nevertheless, Dewhurst offers us a genuine demystification of this legendary lady, that is both a tribute and a workout.
Still, she has not always been helped by a' director whose choices are frequently arbitrary. Carlotta's meandering strolls to the upstage deck become predictable in their repetition, as if to explore less trodden stage space rather than escape the imprisonment of a hospital cell to return to the past. On other occasions, it becomes difficult to determine whether Carlotta is addressing husband, doctor, audience, or all three. The need for such clarification seems blatantly ignored. When Carlotta, sitting serenely on her bed, suddenly transforms herself into Josie Hogan and declares her boundless love for Jim Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten, however, the audience is privy to a kind of stage magic that requires no fussing with gestures or props. Finally there is Dewhurst, as Carlotta Monterey, alone at center stage, assuring her husband that the laurel she has planted on his grave will have to do for both of them, as no one will bother to remember her. Perhaps Ernotte should have allowed more moments like these simply to happen.--Gary Vena
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