Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 1
Spring, 1987



3. WAITING FOR TERRY. By curious if not mystical coincidence, Carlotta Monterey was not the only O'Neill haunting New York City's east side in the early months of 1987. (See the review of Barbara Gelb's My Gene earlier in this issue.) Eugene himself also materialized, in the person of Jeffrey W. Ryback, who performed his own one-man show, Eugene O'Neill: Dancing with the Devil, for nine performances (March 1-15) at the Church of Our Lady of the Scapular of Carmel, prior to its official "world premiere" (retitled Dancing with the Devil: Eugene O'Neill at the Golden Swan Cafe.) at the Vermont Repertory Theatre in Winooski (March 20 -- April 4), where it had previously won an award for playwriting. The director was Robert R. Ringer, and the New York tryout was sponsored by the American Ensemble Company. GARY VENA, who attended one of the New York performances, offers the following assessment. The editor, who took in the production as well, seconds his views and has added, in brackets, asides of his own.

The action takes place, according to a program note, in "the Golden Swan Cafe (better known as the 'Hell Hole') ... presumably 1915, Greenwich Village, New York City, but actually the time is beyond time in a place unknown to the living. Some would call it heaven, others hell." In an antiseptic microset suggesting an Iceman Cometh for one, O'Neill confronts us, his audience, with assurances that. his friend Terry Carlin--"the man who would become my bright light," "the man most responsible for my success as a writer— he gave me a soul"--will be arriving shortly. While waiting in vain for a drinking companion who never does appear, O'Neill swats flies, sweeps a spotless floor, downs endless shots from a bottle of Glenlivet, and offers us a meticulous outline of the course of his life, with handy references to letters, news clippings and reviews collected in a shoe box that sits comfortably on an adjacent table. [Evidently the playwright is plagued by guilt because he had failed to attend a scheduled reunion with Carlin in Boston, December 1933, during the tryout of Days Without End at the Plymouth Theatre, and Carlin had died a few days later. A touching premise, but one that makes the program's "presumably 1915" especially troublesome.]

Ryback is an attractive and assured performer whose impersonation captures the suave, slightly preppy façade of the playwright. He has also assembled a generally accurate, although tedious, chronology of event upon event, the details of which occasionally move and entertain his listeners, such as the hype which surrounded the premiere of All God's Chillun or the press conference O'Neill held just before the opening of Iceman. For the most part, however, Ryback skates on the surface, rarely allowing his protagonist to dive into the deep and confront the devil of his play's title. [Nor, aside from the broomwork, is there any dancing, literal or figurative.] Even the briefest acquaintance with O'Neill's work, aside from his personal life, more than suggests the presence of a demon worth engaging. But Ryback's Beckettian premise of waiting--and existing--for an answer from outside should have resulted in a more powerful and convincing journey into self.

[This O'Neill seemed more often a guest lecturer than an obsessed wraith. Desire Under the Elms was "kind of a Greek tragedy." Dynamo was "a real dud." Mournning Becomes Electra "was to become one of my masterpieces." One expected more than such out-of-character phrases and, one after another, the exact dates of opening nights. Surely the spectral O'Neill would have deeper thoughts than Ryback's on such subjects as paternity ("I was never very good with kinds") and the divorce from Agnes Boulton ("Time inevitably destroys all things of beauty"). We sense the excitement of radical ideas in the Greenwich Village circa 1915--the "good old days" that Carlin symbolizes; and we sense the alienation O'Neill felt when he returned to Broadway with Iceman in 1946, after a-twelve year hiatus. But there was little else beyond potted biography and a casualness of attitude best epitomized in the speaker's exit line at the end of the first act: "Well, nature calls. I'll be back in ten."]

Perhaps if Terry Carlin had kept his appointment, their boozy interaction would have led to certain truths which might transcend familiar biographical data that, in the present context, provide limited dramatic appeal. [Bibliophiles may wish to know that the posthumous O'Neill makes use of the paperback editions of the Gelbs' biography and Long pay's Journey. He also sports an electronic watch that beeps on the hour.]



© Copyright 1999-2007