Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Seven "Chasing Manet" and "Desire Under the Elms"

"Chasing Manet"
Early in this show (and several times during the first act), Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander), a once-celebrated artist now shunted to a nursing home, shouts "Out! Out! I want out!"

I knew exactly how she felt -- and left at intermission. Absolutely one of the worst plays I've seen in New York. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Simplistic script, pitiful performances (Lynn Cohen, however, did show a few sparks) and clumsy direction. Add to all this the fact that one of the actors had a family emergency just before curtain, so one of the theater staff stepped in and performed that actor's roles -- but not in costume and carrying a script in her hand.


"Desire Under the Elms"
From the very first moments of this production of one of O'Neill's earlier plays (a transplant from Chicago's Goodman Theatre), it's clear that one is in for an experience of raw, elemental power. First, it's a tremendously loud bang that precedes the raising of the scrim/curtain that shocks you to attention. Then, once that scrim flies away, it reveals a set composed mostly of large granite boulders -- into which come Simeon and Peter Cabot (Daniel Stewart Sherman and Boris McGiver), dragging a sled filled with more boulders. Sweating and straining, but saying not a word, they manage to offload the sled and move to their next task -- gutting the whole pig hanging by its feet above the stage, dripping blood into a bucket. As they haul guts and organs from the animal's belly, it becomes obvious that life is hard, unforgiving and relentless and the audience had best be prepared for an evening of the same. No happy endings expected. None received.

However, if you like your theater intense, laying bare deep human emotions, then you won't be disappointed by the story of the Cabot family. Ephraim, the patriarch (played by Brian Dennehy), has spent his entire life at such toil, and expects no less from his three sons: the aforementioned Simeon and Peter, plus Eben, their half-brother. Eben (Pablo Schreiber) has taken on the duties of his long-dead mother: cooking and housework. But he is, ultimately, the flintiest member of this New England clan. When dad brings home a new wife, Abbie (Carla Gugino), Eben is either smitten by lust or compelled by hatred of his father to have Abbie for his own.

Everything about this production is outsized: the rocks, the emotions, the performances. Even the house, though of modest size, seems massive in scale. I could imagine someone hating this version of "Desire"; it is, after all, quite a rough 100 intermission-less minutes. But I ate it up. It's tragedy on a brobdingnagian scale, performed by a uniformly terrific cast, under the obviously sure hand of director Robert Falls.

Though the Cabots comment regularly on how "pretty" the sky or the landscape (or the new baby) is, nothing is pretty about their lives or their outlook on life. But if you can see past the raw ugliness and tragedy, there's a shiny, pretty gem of a play waiting for you at the St. James Theater.

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