Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Desire Under The Elms


By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Robert Falls. St. James Theatre. (CLOSED)

The reviews for this elms-less Desire Under the Elms range from A+ to F-. The only thing critics agree on is that Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber are sexy together, but they do not agree on whether this has to do with acting ability or just good looks. In general, Gugino gets more positive notices than Schreiber, and there are a few raves for both of them as well as Brian Dennehy. Those critics not won over note that the actors spend most of the play yelling. Other aspects of the play that receive much attention but no consensus are an anachronistic Bob Dylan song and Walt Spangler's set design consisting mostly of boulders.

Backstage A+
(David Sheward) But there's nothing melodramatic or phony about this intense, sizzling revival. Falls wisely eschews naturalism and sets the play on a desolate rock-strewn heath. A triangle of greed and sexual rivalry is played out in this forbidding environment under an enormous suspended farmhouse, which hangs over the action like a crushing weight ready to drop at any moment. Designer Walt Spangler deserves full marks for creating a hellish setting that works as both a metaphor for the characters' struggles and the world in which they eat, sleep, and—to put it delicately—fornicate. That last-named activity is the driving force here, defying O'Neill's reputation for writing too many long monologues. The running time is a swift 100 minutes, and many of the passions are conveyed without words.

Chicago Tribune A+
(Chris Jones) There is no question that the performances in this arresting, audacious deconstruction of Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 drama of family passion and possession—a “Desire” without elms and sans a good slice of the original text—have deepened significantly. As Ephraim Cabot, the play’s patriarch, Brian Dennehy has now mastered much more of the role’s magnitude, and fills out the existential dilemma at the heart of Falls’ production.

Time Out New York A+
(David Cote) Rejoice: It is possible to revive Eugene O'Neill to spectacular effect. Robert Falls proves it with his sensational and sexually charged Desire Under the Elms. Muscular, lusty, elemental and pitched to operatic heights, Desire will restore your faith in O'Neill's admittedly turgid early melodramas, which marry Freudian obsessions to a received Greek-tragic aesthetic... Walt Spangler's monumental set—the Cabot farmhouse spends periods suspended high in the air, counterbalanced by massive boulders hanging from ropes—almost overpowers the humans. (The menacing sound design by Richard Woodbury is also impressive.) But Falls wisely encourages his cast to play it to the heavens.

Theater News Online A
(Andy Buck) Falls elicits strong performances from all three of his leads. When Schreiber and Gugino first confront each other in that kitchen scene, the electricity is so hot you can almost hear the hum of the power lines. Schreiber brings a dynamic sense of danger to every role he performs, whether it's the wounded son in the Tony-winning revival of Awake and Sing! or the raging misogynist in last year's original off-Broadway premiere of reasons to be pretty. Here his powerful connection to his character's yearnings goes a long way towards overcoming O'Neill's more purple passages... But the most thrilling element of this revival is the set designed by Goodman veteran Walt Spangler, who works seamlessly with Richard Woodbury's other-worldly sound design to create an unpredictable, Expressionistic terrain of tragic longing.

The New York Times A
(Charles Isherwood) First seen at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where it was the centerpiece of a winter festival devoted to O’Neill, this visually spectacular production wraps his powerful but problematic 1924 play in a big bear hug, making no attempt to throw a blanket of soft naturalism over its sometimes glaring flaws... Rarely has sexual passion been depicted with such tense, animalistic ferocity on a Broadway stage. After a somewhat ponderous start, during which we have a little too much time to marinate in the stagy, countrified dialect O’Neill employs, the temperature rockets upward when Abbie and Eben meet and exchange a long glare in the farmhouse kitchen. Mr. Schreiber, with a backwoods face and beefcake body, radiates a febrile, simmering fury in a performance of taut intensity... With Ms. Gugino, Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Dennehy giving performances of unflagging commitment and exposed feeling, the production manages to transcend the play’s flaws to transmit the penetrating truth of O’Neill’s underlying vision, of the ineradicable human need to possess and be possessed.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) The production from Chicago's Goodman Theatre is big and booming, almost operatic in its intensity and expansiveness. And it's stocked with oversized yet effective performances that hold their own against a gargantuan setting of rocks and a giant farmhouse that literally hangs in the air for much of the evening. That forbidding structure is the centerpiece of designer Walt Spangler's grandiose set design. "Desire Under the Elms" is a challenge for any director and cast. Fortunately, director Robert Falls and a terrific cast headed by Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber are at the top of their game.

Nytheatre.com A
(Michael Criscuolo) Fans of serious drama will most likely find themselves satisfied and thrilled by The Goodman Theatre's Broadway transfer of Eugene O'Neill's classic tragedy, which is brilliantly conceived by Falls and his design team, and just as brilliantly acted (for the most part) by its fiery and relentless cast... There are many different kinds of the titular emotion on display, but it's the desire for ownership—of both the farm and each other—that drives the characters the most. They view ownership as the ultimate manifestation of personal freedom, none of them the wiser that their single-minded pursuit turns each of their lives into a prison. Falls conveys this idea forcefully with Spangler's set design, a rock quarry that surrounds the playing area and makes escape difficult. Some boulders create walls dozens of feet high, others hang behind a scrim as if sinking into the ocean. The set mirrors O'Neill's language, which is rough and flinty throughout ("It's spring and I'm feeling damned!" one of the characters recalls), and the overall effect is powerfully unsettling.

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Robert Falls' production of the Eugene O'Neill drama, imported from Chicago, unfurls at a fever pitch. The set, the sentiments, the accents -- everything is dialed up to 11 and played completely straight. Leave your sense of irony at home and embrace the insanity, and you won't find a more intense experience on Broadway.

The New Yorker A-
(Hilton Als) While Falls makes exceptionally strong theatre, this production at times teeters on the edge of another kind of bathos—albeit a postmodernist one. Falls intends to get to O’Neill’s essence. The language matters less to him than the master’s underlying intentions, and he has cut the play from three acts to one, eliminating both intermissions. For the most part, this is helpful; Falls’s script is tighter and clearer than O’Neill’s, more openly erotic, and less biased against the character of Abbie (Carla Gugino), the new bride whom Ephraim brings home, and whom Eben takes to and against from the first. It’s a measure of Falls’s inventiveness as a director that Abbie and Eben’s desire for each other is rarely spoken.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) Compared with her costars — particularly two-time Tony winner Brian Dennehy, our generation's foremost interpreter of the plays of Eugene O'Neill — Carla Gugino is a theatrical tenderfoot. She has made as many professional stage experiences as she has Spy Kids movies (three). Yet the minute Gugino's untamed Abbie — the 35-year-old trophy wife of Dennehy's 75-year-old Ephraim Cabot — strides into this steamy if not scorching revival of Desire Under the Elms, she stakes claim to more than just the Cabot farm: ''It's purty — purty! I can't b'lieve it's r'ally mine.'' She owns the show.

Newsday B+
(Linda Winer) The plot is still ludicrously overheated. The heavy New England dialect is still silly and self-conscious, sprinkled both with "ay-ups" and pronouncements about "goin' to Californ-ay-a" that sound like bad dialogue in a gold-rush Western. But these powerful actors buy it, which makes us willing to suspend vast stretches of inevitable disbelief. Gugino has a visceral lusciousness as the new bride. Schreiber has a sensitive undercurrent to his brutal hunger. With flowing white hair and shiny teeth for his stony grin, Dennehy captures both the cruelty and the isolation of a man made harder by his own self-justification.

CurtainUp B
(Elyse Sommer) This is certainly an ambitiously nervy, sexy and invigorating production. However, as it takes a while to acclimate one's ears to the heavy accents, the rocky landscape and that dangling house make the viewer too aware of the directorial conceit at work to get immediately caught up in the desperate mix of emotions at the heart of the play. Fortunately, there are enough striking scenes, many without words, to overcome the fascinating if somewhat too stage-y setting: Eben's taking a bath as Abbie hangs out the wash and each seemingly aware of the other's nearby presence. . .the uncommunicative family locking hands across the dining table in silent pre-dinner prayer. . .Abbie and Eben's redemptive climb up the rocky farm road to meet the town sheriff. Best of all, the actors get us caught up in this tale of hate, passion, redemption and dogged survival and they do lead us to what Larry Bommer (Chicago production review) aptly describes as a thrilling end.

Variety B-
(David Rooney) One of Falls' most unconventional touches is an anachronistic musical montage set to Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet," in which Abbie cleans and takes possession of the house, pegging out laundry while drinking in Eben's muscled body as he steps in and out of the bathtub. "It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there," sings Dylan, articulating a despair that's about to get uglier. Equally audacious is the torrid mime sequence in which Abbie's and Eben's burning souls are drawn together while blowhard Ephraim boasts of his Herculean achievement in turning a pile of rocks into the coveted farm. Embellishing a production pruned to an intermissionless one hour 45 minutes, these florid directorial strokes might be inorganic and to some extent take the audience out of the drama, but they're nothing if not arresting.

American Theater Web C+
(Andy Propst) In Gugino's spirited, yet ever so close to the vest performance, one's never quite sure as to Abbie's true motivations, and once the affair has gone awry, Gugino's subtle turn adds another layer of mystery to the whole thing – has Abbie lapsed into a kind of all-consuming madness. These questions – along with Dennehy's blisteringly intense portrayal of Ephraim and Schreiber's equally vivid portrayal of the tortured (and torturing) Eben – are what pull theatergoers through "Desire," which is otherwise, unfortunately, simply a pretentiously overwrought melodrama from a young playwright still finding his voice. There are glimpses here of the greatness that follows in O'Neill's canon. Ephraim, certainly, is an early incarnation of the paternal ogre found in Long Day's Journey Into Night, and there are echoes of the love affair of the sad misfits of Moon for the Misbegotten in Abbie and Eben's attraction to one another. But the elements and alchemy in "Desire" are handled clumsily at best.

(Scott Brown) With its portentous dimensions and almost comically priapic atmosphere of dread, Desire cries out for either unself-conscious energy or ironic, Wooster-style dismemberment. Falls delivers something in between: a soft-core meditation on Want that pinches off the energy. Thus gelded, Dennehy and Schreiber both come off weak, restrained, a little strangled in speech and affect. (A uniform approach to New England dialect might’ve helped.) But this is Abbie’s show, and Gugino, an underrated actress in full possession of her considerable gifts (just listen to her form the word “mine”), bestrides it like a goddess.

The Bergen Record C
(Robert Feldberg)Rather bravely, director Robert Falls has stripped down O’Neill’s 1924 play – scenes and secondary characters have been scrapped – and reshaped it into a tightly focused 100 minutes that attempt to render the melodrama, set on an 1850 New England farm, as O’Neill envisioned: as a Greek-style tragedy... Falls wants us to experience the raw, insatiable feelings the young lovers have for each other. And if the theater were more intimate, that might work. But the St. James is a huge house, meant for musicals, and the distance between actors and audience is too great to share the characters’ reckless abandon. The heat dissipates before it reaches us.

(Roma Torre) Eugene O'Neill's lengthy text has been condensed, characters cut and the volume ratcheted up to operatic heights. Eye-catching as it all is, this stylized production seemed to be more about the style than substance. Perhaps because "Desire Under The Elms" doesn't quite rank in the same league as O'Neill's better known masterpieces, Falls and his designers felt the need to jazz it up – and so it starts with a literal bang, followed by a lengthy bit of stage business complete with the gutting of a pig carcass. There's plenty of moody music and even a montage sequence set to a Bob Dylan right out of MTV. But that's not all. This play, inspired by Greek tragedy, is all about passion. And that prompted Falls to whip his company into overdrive with an emphasis on the sensual. Translation: expect to see a lot of skin and sex.

Just Shows To Go You C-
(Patrick Lee) Falls seems to play the characters as archetypes in a grand operatic tragedy, but he revels in the young ones’ lust so salaciously that it’s hard to take it any more seriously than As The World Turns. Brian Dennehy does fine, commanding work as the old contemptuous farmlord, but Falls pulls focus from one of his most dramatic monologues by simultaneously staging a hot and heavy pantomime for the lovers.

(Matt Windman) In spite of the over-the-top emotions, what really keep this production grounded are the cast’s convincing performances Carla Gugino oozes with a Maggie the Cat sexuality that is eventually tempered by guilt and desperateness. Paolo Schreiber erupts with an overreaching anger ready to erupt. Their accents are occasionally difficult to understand. Brian Dennehy is commanding as the proud and stubborn patriarch. Robert Falls’ direction is unnecessarily conceptual. Instead of pastoral elms, the set consists of a huge rock quarry, obviously meant to symbolize how the play’s characters feel trapped. The family’s house is a massive set piece that ascends and descends from above.

The Village Voice D
(Michael Feingold) Falls wants too many incompatible things: This mini-Stonehenge, in which the erotic struggle of father, son, and stepmother will be fought out, also has to partake of deconstructionist chic, so Walt Spangler's set has to feature boulders that float against the New England sky; and it has to be faithful to O'Neill's realist vision, so the Cabot house has to float, too, while its master bedroom sprouts from a rocky cave. It's tough trying to walk, or design, in three directions at once.

Theatermania D-
(David Finkle) In contrast with the maternal feel that O'Neill requires for his throbbing melodrama, Falls substitutes paternal oppressiveness. Moreover, while large-scale passions are definitely the order of the day, Falls equates them with the actors shouting at the top of possibly diseased lungs. Abbie and Eben hold their initial shared gaze for long, wordless seconds -- to notify spectators that lust-at-first-sight has struck meteor-like -- but it's one of the few moments throughout the 100-minute play when he doesn't insist the characters yell out of rage or sheer spite. The misguided emphasis on volume takes its toll on the performances by these five clearly accomplished actors. Gugino, who gets to flash her breathtaking legs, and Schreiber, who has a body ripe for the cover of Men's Health, may circle and grope each other like animals in heat, but the unchanging decibel level precludes much sense of their interior lives. Dennehy has the same problem, although his abrupt aging at the denouement is impressive. Still, this is a rocky production in every sense of the word.

The Daily News F+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) No trees. No subtlety. Lots of concepts. And rocks. In a nutshell, that's Broadway's new "Desire Under the Elms," Robert Falls' second baffling revival of the season. First came "American Buffalo," David Mamet's tale of petty thievery, which was underdone. Now it's an audacious interpretation of Eugene O'Neill's Oedipal 19th-century farm melodrama, which is overcooked.

Lighting & Sound America F
(David Barbour) You know the director means business when the curtain goes up on a lengthy pantomimed sequence, set to nerve-wrackingly percussive music, in which two minor characters -- the older sons of the tyrannical New England farmer Ephraim Cabot - slowly, painfully drag oversized rocks across the stage. Next, they gut a trussed-up hog, removing its entrails with their hands as the shrieks of pigs in agony rend the air. Apparently, we're meant to understand that the characters endure a subhuman, hardscrabble existence; I'd love to know who thought any play by O'Neill -- who never makes a point fewer than five times -- needed this kind of extra emphasis... there's a difference between unbridled passions and unhinged direction, and Desire Under the Elms leans too far in the direction of the latter. By emphasizing everything that is overheated about the script, Falls takes it right into the territory of self-parody. All three leads seem engaged in a shouting match. Schreiber has trouble coping with Eben's instantaneous mood shifts -- he hates Abbie, then he loves her, then he hates her, then he loves her -- but this is always a challenge for actors playing O'Neill. Carla Gugino unleashes her full repertory of vocal tricks, trying to turn Abbie into an unstoppable force of nature, but, too much of the time, you can see the actress consciously deploying her technique. Brian Dennehy strikes poses and pitches his lines to balcony, trying to act Biblical and patriarchal, but the performance is oddly lacking in impact.

The Hollywood Reporter F
(Frank Scheck) When Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" began blaring through the speakers, while actors Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino went through a series of silent activities, the production confirmed its wrongheadedness. It's easy to see what director Robert Falls is aiming for with his production, which garnered much acclaim at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. His Expressionistic staging clearly seems designed to accentuate the stylized aspects of this problematic, Greek tragedy-inspired work. Unfortunately, his choices too often call attention to themselves, rather than enhancing the emotional impact of the overheated melodrama.

Bloomberg News F
(John Simon) Dennehy, a fine actor, cuts an imposing figure as the looming Ephraim, but one misses some of the drivenness that a George C. Scott, for example, could have conveyed. As Eben, gangly Schreiber, who must be both a mama’s boy constantly bemoaning his dead mother, and a demon lover and hater for Abbie, is not up to the complex, contradictory emotions. Gugino is more delicate than the Abbie whom O’Neill envisioned, but she does not stint on the requisite steaminess. Daniel Stewart Sherman is a spectacularly gross Simeon and Boris McGiver, as Peter, hops about semidementedly. The play runs to 100 tortured, and torturing, intermissionless minutes, perhaps to deny us a respite during which we might speculate about just how lucrative the trade in boulders could have been in 1850s New England.

Wall Street Journal F
(Terry Teachout) Enter Robert Falls, a director who never met a trendy idea he didn't try. The "King Lear" that he staged in 2006 for the Goodman Theatre opened with a scene set in a men's room. "Desire Under the Elms" isn't as fat-headed as that, but it comes close. Unwilling to tell O'Neill's tale on the modest, tightly focused scale envisioned by the playwright, Mr. Falls has instead turned it into a self-parody in which every effect is loud and every gesture broad. The trouble starts with the script itself, which Mr. Falls has cut with abandon, excising an entire scene and several minor characters. Not content to stop there, he has transferred the action of the play from a rundown New England farm whose most distinctive feature is a pair of "enormous elms" that "brood oppressively over the house" to the aforementioned quarry, a barren landscape designed by Walt Spangler in which nothing grows. (Symbolism! Symbolism!) The rubber pig is one of Mr. Falls's bright ideas, and so, I suspect, are the preposterous performances of Mr. McGiver and Mr. Sherman, who are mistakenly portrayed not as objects of pity but figures of fun.

Talkin' Broadway F-
(Matthew Murray) The way the actors alternately blare, mumble, spit, and swallow their lines, often into utter incomprehensibility (Schreiber is particularly poor in this regard), is not an identifiable attempt at communication - with each other or with us. It doesn’t matter much: The cuts and the atmosphere of suffocating abstractness ensure O’Neill barely has his say anyway. But there is still some meat here. The Westward Expansion, the allure of California gold, and the debilitating effects of living a life of want are vibrant topics for exploring how souls are discovered, stripped bare, wounded, and healed, even when they seem their most untouchable. The romantic triangle at the center of the show may be silly on the surface to our eyes, but it’s the pulsating heart of America at its greediest and grabbiest, the reminder you can’t (and shouldn’t) always get everything you crave. That’s the essence of Desire Under the Elms. But Falls and his actors are so obsessed with playing its symbolism - another example: The cabin’s kitchen table (the emblem of home) is profusely fondled, rubbed, and sweat on - that they forget to just play the play. The result is one of the most overwrought and underthought ensembles with major names that I’ve ever seen on Broadway.

Backstage A+ 14; Chicago Tribune A+ 14; TONY A+ 14; Theater News Online A 13; The New York Times A 13; Associated Press A 13; Nytheatre.com A 13; New York Post A- 12; The New Yorker A- 12; EW B+ 11; Newsday B+ 11; CurtainUp B 10; Variety B- 9; American Theater Web C+ 8; NYMag C 7; The Bergen Record C 7; NY1 C 7; Just Shows To Go You C- 6; AMNY C- 6; The Village Voice D 4; Theatermania D- 3; The Daily News F+ 2; Lighting & Sound America F 1; The Hollywood Reporter F 1; Bloomberg News F 1; WSJ F 1; Talkin' Broadway F- 0; TOTAL: 213/27 = 7.89 (C+)

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