It is not enough to say that The Hairy Ape, currently playing at the Park Avenue Armory and a co-production with the Old Vic, is a superlative production – though it is. It should also spark a revision of how we receive Eugene O’Neill’s work in the twenty-first century. That is a lot to place on this production, but its broad shoulder can handle the load and responsibility.
The play is not one of the better known in the O’Neill canon. I read it as part of a graduate school class on twentieth-century American drama, but have never seen it performed until now. There have been multiple productions of Long Day’s Journey, Iceman, Moon, and even the odd Anna Christie, Elms, and Wilderness. Since its 1922 premiere in New York City (transferring to Broadway from The Provincetown Players), The Hairy Ape has rarely made it onstage – a 1930 London production with Paul Robeson would certainly have been interesting but problematic through our lens of 2017.
It is easy to see why. Expressionistic, political, and focused on class in America, The Hairy Ape does not dive into the psychological complexity of its characters we associate with the playwright’s later work. That, however, does not make any less valuable and vital. The plot is simplicity itself. Yank (Bobby Cannavale), a stoker on a cruise liner, loses all sense of pride as a hard-working working class man after a brief encounter with heiress Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs). The lion’s share of the play follows Yank as he moves through New York’s Upper East Side seeking revenge and instead finding humiliation and after humiliation. He at last arrives at the gorilla’s cage at the zoo, and even there, a hoped-for comradeship is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Sitting at the Park Avenue Armory (physically located in the midst of most of the play’s action), I felt the scales falling from my eyes. What had been relegated as an interesting curiosity from O’Neill’s early career spoke to our present moment with a clear and angry voice as any of the soliloquies from The Iceman Cometh. Here was a working class man who lost all sense of his place within the American community. With the passing of each scene, he spirals further and further downward into irrelevance. Even the Wobblies, portrayed as members of the coastal elites, have no use for Yank and throw him out the door. His tragedy (and it is a tragedy in the Ancient Greek sense) is as relevant today the drama of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.
Hairy Ape should allow us to open our eyes to the larger O’Neill canon. Like Miller and Williams, O’Neill has become a part of the American drama museum: works from a “golden age” of theatre that are now given prestige if ultimately safe productions. The playwright chronicles those who do not fit into American life, even the relatively prosperous Tyrones. His characters have fallen into despair, financial ruin, and driftlessness. Even when O’Neill takes a certain mocking tone toward radicals and Socialists, it has much more to do with their lack of effectiveness than ideology. His America is harsh and uninviting; it is quick to destroy any and all, including its greatest adherents. Yank moves from a sense of exaggerated pride (he is the “guts” of the ship) to an ultimate desolation. Despite his physical strength, he is emotionally and psychological brittle and unprepared for the realities of a society bound up with a social hierarchy.
As Yank, Cannavale is a wonder. Whether in film (The Station Agent), television (Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl), or stage (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Motherfucker with the Hat), Cannavale is poetry in motion and action. He brings his usual vitality, energy, and intelligence – and then some! – to Yank. Thus, Yank never feels like a caricature or a representation, but a fully complex and nuanced character whose downward descent into a personal Hell, despite the expressionistic nature of the play, always feels so very, very real. The excellent cast – that feels much larger than it is – gives full and complete support to its lead. Combs hilariously portrays the petulant and spoiled Mildred. As Paddy, David Constable gives life to O’Neill’s elegiac poetry concerning life at sea (something that wends its way throughout the playwright’s career through to the famous Edmund monologue in Long Day’s Journey). Chris Bannow is a wonderfully sniveling Long.
Aletta Collins (choreographer) and Thomas Schall (fight director) have crafted a beautiful, pulsating, and textured physical life for the production; every movement adds to the narrative drive and there is not a wasted motion throughout. Director Richard Jones deserves a standing ovation in his own right. The production was flawless from the character work with the actors to the design elements to the production logistics; that it all looked so easy meant that he must have spent numerous hours of hard labor to make it all happen. His use of the Park Avenue Armory space itself was innovative, fully utilizing every nook and cranny and creating a sense of depth rarely seen outside of cinema; the upstage wall resembled, for all the world, the Odeon of Herod Atticus.
From start to finish, it was a dazzling achievement.