Pity the modern theater director who wants to stage the revival of a classic play. It seems that it’s no longer enough to just realize the writer’s text. Or to draw nuanced performances from the actors. Nowadays, you need to have an original concept, a new spin on the material, or, as the strippers in Gypsy might say, “you gotta get a gimmick.”
Sometimes the revisionism works, as with the current modern-dress productions of Mary Stuart and Our Town. Sometimes it falls short of its mark, as with the semi-Spanish version of West Side Story and the completely expressionistic interpretation of All My Sons. And sometimes it falls on its ass, as with the new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms that opened at the St. James Theatre on Sunday night.
No one was more surprised to see Desire Under the Elms land on its butt than me. I’m a sucker for O’Neill, despite—or maybe because of—his florid language and melodramatic plots. And I’m a big fan of the creative team behind this production. Its director Robert Falls and lead actor Brian Dennehy have done wonderful work together in the past with their collaborations on Death of A Salesman and Long Days Journey Into Night. Its co-stars Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber have given standout performances in previous shows. But, this time, they all get so tangled up in the concept that they forget the play.
Desire Under the Elms is set shortly before the Civil War and tells that eternally titillating story of the older man with the younger wife who falls for a young man—in this case, the young man is also her stepson. The original production, which opened in 1924, had 20 actors—12 of them townsfolk who attend a party where they make fun of the cuckolded older husband, played then by Walter Huston, father of the film director John and grandfather of the movie actors Anjelica and Danny. It ran for a solid year.
The play was revived in 1952, with a 39-year old Karl Malden, who made a career of playing guys older than he actually was, as the 75-year old husband, even though the actor playing his perfidious son turned 31 the day after the short 46-performance run ended. A young, 27 year-old Colleen Dewhurst played one of the busybody neighbors.
There are no neighbors in the current production. Instead there are just five actors—the members of the love triangle and two other sons who disappear early in the play. So there is no party scene. Other stuff has been cut too so that the play, which usually sprawls over three acts and three hours, clocks in at under two intermissionless hours. It just feels a lot longer.
There are no elms either. Instead set designer Walt Spangler has filled the stage with boulders that I guess are suppose to symbolize some kind of oppression but instead create such a bleak landscape that I found myself wondering if Spangler and Falls had secretly longed to show what they might have done with the existential wasteland of Waiting for Godot.
So what does Falls add? Well, a lot of sex. Schreiber—who apparently has been working out in preparation for the role—does the full monty for a gratuitous bath scene. Gugino, who showed her sexual fearlessness when she played the Marilyn Monroe character in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall a few seasons back, slinks around the stage in dresses that keep falling in revealing ways. And the two of them get down on places like the kitchen table.
When they’re not clinched together or trading smoldering stares, they—and Dennehy too—are yelling at one another. And they do it in gratingly different accents. The family’s farm—presented here as a kind of doll house that is raised, lowered and hovers over the stage—is set in New England. But, except for the occasional “Ay-yup,” you wouldn’t know it. Schreiber affects a southern drawl, Dennehy favors a kind of Irish brogue and Gugino, who apparently hasn’t yet made up her mind, alternates throughout the performance. O’Neill, who liked to write in dialect, bears some of the blame; but if Falls was willing to change the other stuff, why not downplay that?
None of the actors manages to convey real emotions and so Falls resorts to musical underscoring to cue the audience on how it should feel. At one point, he even plays a complete version of the anachronistic Bob Dylan song “Not Yet Dark.”
Several of the major critics, including the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, have raved about this interpretation of Desire Under the Elms. But the only desire I felt was for the chance to see a fine production of the play that the playwright wrote.
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