Karen, Bruce, and I saw *The Hairy Ape* at the Park Avenue Armory on 4/7/17. This was an early hit for Eugene O'Neill - - it's from 1922, right after *Anna Christie* and *The Emperor Jones* in 1920. It's heavily influenced by O'Neill's spiritual grandfather, proto-Expressionist playwright August Strindberg, but instead of overheated Swedish romance, we have turgid American masculinity. Sounds right up my alley, right?
I wasn't wild for it, and I'm not sure if it was the production or the play. The production had a lot to admire. It originated at The Old Vic in London, directed by Richard Jones. He and set designer Stewart Laing used the enormity of the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall in an interesting way: they set up risers for the seats in the middle of the hall and built a revolving ring surrounding the seating area. The show opened in near total darkness, just a line of orange light bulbs high above our heads. Spooky music. The ring rotated around to bring on the set for the first scene, a bright yellow box with twelve men in it.
Bright yellow was a big deal in this show - - the seats we were sitting on were bright yellow, the programs, many of the sets, and elements of the costumes. The color (in my opinion) conveyed the acidic oppression of the Modern Age. And no, I did NOT read that in the program notes, I made it up myself. One quick note about the seats before I move on: Karen thought they were deliberately uncomfortable, in an effort to create an immersive theatrical experience. I was undeterred, I still fell asleep. Just to show 'em.
The play opens in a claustrophobic room on a ship, the twelve men are workers below decks. I was drawn in by the force of the staging: dirt-smeared men in overalls shouting, drinking, and singing, jumping onto tables, hanging from pipes, suddenly leaning off to one side and freezing at the cue of that spooky music. The problem is that such a forceful staging has to amplify the text, or work against it in an illuminating way, and that wasn't happening here. I feel like the director, though he clearly loves the play, was trying to do a Silk Purse / Sow's Ear sleight of hand, and I'm not gonna fall for that.
I love O'Neill, but I didn't love this. Karen, Bruce, and I saw *The Iceman Cometh* at BAM a few years ago, and sweet Jesus, that was overwhelming in its genius, it was a thrill just to sit there and be in the presence of such brilliant writing. And Richard and I saw *Long Day's Journey Into Night* last spring, that was fantastic. But this, I feel like O'Neill was still finding his voice. I'm nearly always up for the suspension of disbelief, but I have a hard time with the suspension of understanding. That works best for me when it's done in a whimsical way, a la Luis Buñuel, not in a heavy-handed way like O'Neill does here.
I should mention Bobby Cannavale, the star of the show. He was fully committed in his performance, which is always a joy to see. He seemed to really believe in the show, and relished the opportunity to sink his teeth into a big, juicy cut of beefsteak. An actor's voice and body are his/her instrument, and Cannavale played both beautifully, his distinctive, raspy voice was a particular delight to hear, he had a lovely way with the poetry of O'Neill's language.
I'm going to go off on a tangent for a bit, but trust me. I'm somewhat tuned into the frequency of the cabaret scene here in New York. Sometimes it seems like the bread and butter of this scene is women of a certain age who decide that they can revive their careers by doing a cabaret show, where they can fake their way through a few songs, tell some amusing stories, and look soigné in a cocktail dress. I'm all for first-class artists like Annie Ross and Marilyn Maye doing this, they're fantastic. And Richard and I fell hook, line, and sinker for Pia Zadora's show a few years ago, she knocked us out, that was a surprise.
But every now and then I see an ad in The Times and I have to shake my head. Like a few years ago, I said to Richard (hollered, really) on a Sunday morning, "Lynda Carter is playing at Feinstein's! LYNDA freaking CARTER! Who on earth is booking her at Feinstein's, and who is going to see her?" Pause as Richard looks at me patiently. "Where is Debbie Reynolds? Why isn't Debbie Reynolds coming into town and doing a show?" Well, I would sing this Debbie Reynolds refrain every time I read about the Lynda Carters of the world doing cabaret shows, and I finally got my wish. She did a show at the Cafe Carlyle in 2009. We went, and it was incredible.
It seems like by invoking the name of Debbie Reynolds *I* personally was able to conjure up a booking for her at the Cafe Carlyle. So I'm going to try it again. My current dearest wish (which you might have heard before) is that Cate Blanchett do a production of O'Neill's *Strange Interlude.*