Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” a Turn Off at the St. James Theatre

Iíve got a thing for the actor Brian Dennehy. No, not like the thing I have for Alec Baldwin. This is different. Alex Baldwin makes me laugh, too, but Dennehy brings out the Irish in me, just like the sound of The Chieftains and a penny whistle do. So when I heard he was starring in Eugene ONeillís Desire Under the Elms at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, off I went.

Unfortunately, I did not have a good time. Not at all. My problems started when the audience was packed in like sardines into too narrow seats and too tight rows. I felt straight-jacketed. I couldn’t move an inch. I fell into an even uglier mood about twenty-minutes into the play when a woman seated a few seats to the right of me in the row in front of me actually pulled out her cell phone, opened it up, and began to whisper-chat — until the man sitting directly behind her rapped her on the shoulder and told her to HANG UP. (More about that later because it got ugly as the audience stood up at the end of the play.) So maybe this play just got off to a bad start with me . . . or maybe not.

Lose the Maine Accent, PLEASE!

Desire Under the Elms takes place somewhere in New England. I vote Maine because I couldnít understand half of what the actors were saying due to their heavy Down Easter accent. Charming in the Pine Tree State, no doubt, but not good on the New York stage. Could the director, Robert Falls, please fix that?

The play is staged inside the house and on the lawn of the Cabot property in 1850. Old man Cabotís family business is supplying stone for stonewalls. Now, having been brought up in New England where stones are literally everywhere, I know a thing or two about stonewalls. (In fact, just last summer I helped a friend rebuild a collapsed stonewall. My job was to wield the level while he stacked. As a kid, I fell out of a maple tree on to a stonewall that surrounded OUR property, and I have a nasty scar on the back of my head to prove it.) In order to build a foundation for a house or clear fields for crops or create fences for animals, New Englanders recycled the stones from their property. So I ask: Why would the father Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy) and his three sons Eben (Pablo Schreiber), Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver) spend a lifetime hauling stones to sell to others? That would be like bringing coal to Newcastle.

ONeillís storyline is as gripping as his plays titles are intriguing: A 76 year old, widowed farmer brings home a young third wife, Abbie, played by Carla Gugino. Letís see: three sons, new stepmother, family business. Could we be talking inheritance issues here? You bet.

Just Another Bunch of Nasty Characters With Whom to Spend an Evening at the Theatre

The patriarch of the family is a hard, hard man, and things get very nasty very quickly. The problem I am having is that just like in Neil Labute’s play, reasons to be pretty, the characters may be well-acted, but they are so inherently unappealing and unsympathetic that you lose interest in them. The sons lick their dinner plates. (Whose idea was that?) They sleep on the floor or the kitchen table. (Whose idea was that?) Their physical movements are jerky and frantic. (Whose idea was that?) Yuck.

Tabletop S~E~X and S~E~X Al Fresco

Also, I was a little put-off by the simulated s~e~x and the n~u~d~i~t~y on stage. (Iím not spelling those words correctly because if I do, a tsunami of p~o~r~n~o loving people will descend on my Web site and clog my stat counter.) Did they add to the story or were they supposed to be titillating? This was a one-act play. To my mind, thereís usually a reason when a play doesnít have an intermission, and thatís because the author and/or director sense that large portions of the audience will bolt for the parking garage.

You could tell the audienceís attention was drifting throughout the play. There was coughing and people glanced about the St. James Theatre while the play was in progress. There was very polite — well, ok, a little more than simply polite — applause when the curtain came down and the actors came out to take a first and second bow, but hardly the kind of response that blows the roof off the top of the theatre.

The fun part was when we began to exit our row. The woman with the cell phone turned to the man who had tapped her on the shoulder and began to berate him. “Donít you touch me! How dare you touch me!” Touch her? He should have grabbed that cell phone and smacked her upside the head with it. Then you would have heard the wildly enthusiastic applause that was absent from the curtain calls.

Vintage has published three of ONeillís plays, in a single volume: Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra. It would be much more interesting to read Desire Under the Elms than see this production. That said, the production is still in previews and previews are where problems get sorted out, right?

Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing: Ok, this is the end of my tear through Broadway for a while! Don’t forget if you are flying this spring, click over to my other Web site to buy my book, The Cure for Jet Lag! I’ve also added a blog to the site. The new version of the book has gotten excellent reviews!

5 Responses to “Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” a Turn Off at the St. James Theatre”

  1. Al Buck Says:

    I suspect your dislike was not of the play, but of the direction.

    Al Buck

  2. Robert Anthony Says:

    Cell phones during a performance. Broadway has come a long way since I trod the boards and I’m thinking it’s come down. It’s not the intent of the venue that’s a-lacking but of the theatre goers. (The Wicked Witch excepted) The ones who can afford a night on Broadway which must cost what? $500.00? At those prices a cell phone using stilted babe from Scarsdale certainly would have as little problem in whipping out her pacifier than she would in asking the usher where the refridgerator was so she could munch a Dill Pickle between acts.

  3. The Curmudgeon Says:

    The woman with the cell phone should be committed to spending a week in a sardine can with Alec Baldwin.

  4. Maralyn Rittenour Says:

    Our audience was quiet and riveted by the play – tho’ 2 weeks later, a few empty seats. We thought the stage sets were terrific, and Abbie’s acting first-rate. Our opposing impressions do seem to underscore the difference an audience can make.

    By the way, a new New York scam; when my friend didn’t show (she mistakenly thought we were going to the evening performance), I left her ticket at the box office. After the play I was told it had been picked up – by a man! Then I remembered before the play started, a well-spoken, well-dressed gent askede me if I had an extra ticket. He must have observed me leaving the box office and just after curtain up, claimed the ticket and sat in an empty seat far from me. Of course the clerk should have asked for his name and ID.

    Happy ending, when my friend told the story that evening at the box office, they gave her a complimentary, fifth row aisle seat.

  5. Katie Says:

    I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about the accents being used considering they are written into the script. Perhaps, O’ Neill wanted to ensure they could never not be used. And trust me, it is not more fun to read a script when the language looks like this…”Tis a hell av a thing fur grown men to be shiverin’ loike children at a bit av a black box. [scratching his head in uneasy perplexity] Still, ut’s damn queer, the looks av ut.” Excerpt from “In the Zone” by Eugene O’Neill.

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