Desire Under the Elms
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
Starring Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber, Boris McGiver, Daniel Stewart Sherman
Performances April 14-May 24, 2009
St. James Theater
246 West 44th Street
Desire Under the Elms is among Eugene O’Neill’s weakest plays, but even it deserves better than what it receives in Robert Falls’ staging.
O'Neill's overheated romantic tragedy is set in an 1850s New England farmhouse: Ephraim Cabot, the 75-year-old patriarch, has just returned home after a prolonged absence with his new bride, pretty and headstrong Abbie, in tow. His sons from his first marriage, Peter and Simeon, realize that their chances of inheriting the farm are gone; after bargaining with their stepbrother Eben--whose deceased mom was Ephraim's second wife--for their claim of the estate, they leave for the gold of California. Eben, meanwhile, stays, taking care of the chores in the house and in the fields. Soon, his initial dislike for Abbie grows into intense passion (obvious to all except proud old Ephraim) which culminates in an horrific, murderous act.
In Desire, O'Neill struggled to put the square peg of Greek tragedy into the round hole of mid 19th century New England; if his lurid melodrama has any dramatic interest, it comes from the unnaturally heightened language: putting the most stylized, arcane backwoods dialect into the mouths of these characters is surely a dealbreaker for most. The very first words of the play--spoken by Eben--are "God--purty!" which refers to the sunset. A later exchange between Eben and Abbie begins:
EBEN--What air yew cacklin' 'bout?
EBEN--What about me?
ABBIE--Ye look all slicked up like a prize bull.
EBEN--(with a sneer) Waal--ye hain't so durned putty yerself, be ye?
It's tough enough to ask actors to regurgitate this jargon and not sound demented; simply reading the play is like parsing Chaucer's Middle English for the first time, with "Ay-ehs," "Yourns," and "Mebbes" piling up until they resemble a multi-car freeway accident. Admittedly, O'Neill's ludicrously overstated descriptions are great fun to read, especially the lines about the two huge elm trees on either side of the Cabot farmhouse: "They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles."
Falls' staging, contrarily, omits the symbolic trees and should be retitled Desire Under the Rocks. He opens with Peter and Simeon exhaustedly dragging boulders (that's some farm!) and ends with Ephraim himself doing the same rocky duty; in fact, Falls erases much of O'Neill's play, which might have been welcome if he came up with something more original and compelling. Instead, he gives us a set that resembles a rock formation in, say, Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park, which looks similar to--and equally out of place in--the current Waiting for Godot. The imposing rocks are all around them, some even hanging from the ceiling, attached to ropes. The Cabot house too ominously hangs overhead, being lowered or raised as the action warrants.
Apparently, this suffocatingly drab location visually represents what Eben and Abbie are up against: those precarious rocks and house could come crashing down on them at any time. But O'Neill has written a couple whose desire is so all-consuming that nothing can stop it: not even death can keep this couple apart at the end. Falls also fails by inserting unnecessary inventions of his own into the play. The opening sequence is accompanied by a menacing sound design out of a cheap horror movie, along with a dead, gutted pig from which various bloodied organs and intestines are extracted (another pig is roasted on a spit in a later sequence). Falls' most pointless "improvement" is a mimed sequence of Ephraim, Eben and Abbie going about their daily lives set to Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet," a song not only out of place in period but also temperment--what does Dylan's warbling have to do with these over-emotional characters?
Most of the actors are defeated by a combination of O'Neill's writing and Falls' directorial approach. Carlo Gugino looks right in every way as Abbie and strongly commands the stage, yet her monotonous delivery and wavering accent trip her up. Pablo Schreiber distinctly resembles a young Roger Waters--emphatically not what a romantic leading man should look like--and has trouble getting his mouth around O'Neill's dialogue. Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman play the older brothers more cretinously than necessary, although that surely is also Falls' fault. Only Brian Dennehy--with George C. Scott and Jason Robards gone, probably our best O'Neill interpreter--tames the playwright's unwieldy words to breathe life into Ephraim, a pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.
originally posted on timessquare.com