Tag Archives: Old Vic

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.

Williams is Out of the Museum

As a teenager newly discovering theatre, I thought Tennessee Williams was, as the kids say, the bomb. I enjoyed the psychologically compelling dramas, the larger-than-life Southern characters, and baroque poetry of it all. The film adaptations of his work helped sell the package. When you have a Marlon Brando or a Paul Newman portraying your protagonists, you  must be doing something right. But as I got older, I drifted away from Williams. The psychology started to feel forced, the characters more Southern fried, and the language a little too precious. Eugene O’Neill became more prominent in my pantheon. And I started to find British playwrights tackling grittier, more dangerous, more political material. Williams, it seemed to me, belonged in a museum.

And I felt that way for a long time. This summer has changed my thinking for the better. First, I saw Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic in London. This production was fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t clunky. It felt vital and relevant and, well, not tired. Kim Catrall was a good Alexandra Del Lago. Her reading was a bit too modern perhaps, and, Geraldine Page is a hard act to follow. But Seth Numrich hit it out of the park as Chance Wayne. I had seen Numrich in New York earlier in the year in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. Numrich is fast earning a reputation as THE next Broadway dramatic leading man, and it is a well-deserved reputation. In both plays, he made the material alive, vital, dangerous while still remaining true to the intentions of the material.

The second part of this journey stands as the most important. I caught an early preview of The Glass Menagerie now on Broadway (it had started at A.R.T. in Boston). This production is one of those transformative ones you see in your life. I had a very similar experience when I saw Jason Robards perform as Hickey in the 1986 The Iceman Cometh. Director John Tiffany fully invested in what the idea of a memory play means. We feel these characters are disconnected from the world, a notion ably assisted by a fantastic design concept that has the Wingfield family floating both at sea and amongst the stars.

When I was younger and directed this play back at university, I always imagined Tom as the hero. Perhaps it is because I am now middle-aged, but Cherry Jones established Amanda as the hero of this piece. Past Amandas had always been a little too Blanche DuBois, a little too flighty and flakey and too in love with the grand charms of a now extinct South. Here, Jones puts on the Southern coquette as a mask; it is part of a long game she plays to get Amanda married. And for the first time I could hear, really hear, certain lines that had always been there. Amanda, at the end of the day, is a very practical individual. She either wants Laura to get a job OR to get married. The either/or is important here. It is only when the job path no longer becomes viable that she puts all of her attention on marriage. Nor does she flirt with Jim, the Gentleman Caller. There are many reasons to go see this production. If you only have to pick one, then Cherry Jones is it.

The rest of the cast do fine work as well. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim invest their scene — the play’s longest — with both whimsy and dread. The audience cannot help but feel fully in the moment. Keenan-Bolger and Zachary Quinto as Tom give a full back story to the sibling relationship that is often missing. Quinto too shines. Williams’s sexuality is well-documented, and Quinto has been quite candid in public about his own. Quinto and the production team seemed to own Tom Wingfield’s sexuality rather than try to play a game of three-card monty. This move added new layers of depth to his feeling of being trapped and give new dimension to when he disappears at night.

These two productions, the second in particular, gave me a new lease on Williams’s world. It has been a long time since I have wandered the plantations and New Orleans neighborhoods of his work. I am glad to be back.