Tag Archives: Eugene O’Neill

Paula Vogel’s Indecent Brings the Theatrical Past Back to Glorious Life

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now on Broadway after completing a run at the Vineyard Theatre, does something extraordinarily unique. While there have been plays dating back to Aristophanes that have celebrated the power of the theatre, this is the first play that I can recall where a play (in this case God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch) is the main character. Vogel’s play follows Asch’s as it is conceived in Warsaw, crisscrosses Europe on tour, comes to the United States where it encounters overwhelming resistance when it opens on Broadway, and returns yet again to Europe. Along the way, God of Vengeance intersects with the history of the Jewish diaspora and Western theatre.

Vogel created Indecent with Rebecca Taichman, the director, and the collaboration between the two has forged a compelling, indelible work of theatre. Working with a cast of seven (that feels much larger) and three musicians, Taichman gives the play an epic feel as it moves from continent to continent, and historical calamity to historical calamity. Asch’s play came out of the Yiddish Theater; Vogel and Taichman honor its heritage and avoid the hegemony of English. Utilizing a storytelling tool that Brian Friel developed for his Translations, Taichman depicts the trials and tribulations of characters trying to communicate across linguistic barriers. Asch’s achievement is only further highlighted by the challenges of language.

The heart of God of Vengeance is how an impossible love is found in the most trying of circumstances; the daughter of a brothel owner falls in love with one of the prostitutes. That love – that impossible love – brings down the wrath of, well, everyone else in the world. Vogel’s wonderful conceit is that just as that love is the hope of the world of God of Vengeance, so too is God of Vengeance the hope of the world of Indecent. It is the love of the play that drives stage manager Lemml (an excellent Richard Topol) to fight for the play even when the forces arrayed against it are overwhelming. Two poignant scenes – for vastly different reasons – stand out. First, after the company is arrested for indecency during the production’s Broadway opening night, Lemml has a conversation with Eugene O’Neill. The godfather of American playwriting bestows his artistic blessing on God of Vengeance; that endorsement speaks volumes to the power of Asch’s work. The second occurs after Lemml has returned to Europe, to Poland. Under the radar of the Nazi occupiers, he mounts a production of the play in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. Vogel and Taichman have crafted a stunning moment in understatement here. The power and beauty of the play, the essential hope represented by the play in the face of adversity, becomes necessity. I am not ashamed to say that, after decades of theatre-going and developing the cynical persona of the New York theater-goer, I shed tears during this scene.

Taichman deploys the techniques of the Yiddish theater to tell Indecent’s story: music, dance, bare-bones sets, and tight ensemble work. The play moves seamlessly across the years and miles. There is not much in the way of star-turns for the cast of chameleons for together they bring God of Vengeance to life. Nonetheless, Tom Nelis (who has a mad number of skills including the ability to an Irish jig) and Katrina Lenk (whose character would go to prison for the play as written not for its watered-down commercial version) are stand-outs. If Indecent has a weakness, then it would be that it has three endings. The scene in Lodz, emotionally, feels like a fitting conclusion, but there are two codas that simply do not rise in power to the aforementioned moment.

One final thought: God of Vengeance, before it moved to Broadway, played at the Provincetown Playhouse following O’Neill’s Hairy Ape. This innovative and fertile time in theatrical history is currently being played out for New York audiences with Hairy Ape’s revival at the Park Avenue Armory. How fortunate we are to have that lighting caught in a bottle and given a second life here in 2017.

A Revelatory Hairy Ape

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.