The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 1
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
September 9, 2011
Eugene O’Neill is arguably one of the greatest American playwrights. He came of age when melodrama ruled the stage but the fact is he considered himself a poet. He didn’t even like the theater as much as one may think. Perhaps that is because he was forced to sit through too many gaudy Saturday matinees of his father performing in The Count of Monte Cristo. This instilled in him a gross mistrust of an actor’s ability to get it right. So he in turn developed heavy-handed stage directions in order to insure that an actor wouldn’t spoil his intentions. Decades later, enter director Christopher Loar and the NY Neo-Futurists with a brilliantly conceived performance of those stage directions in one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen in a while.
The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill Volume One: Early/Lost Plays is performed sans dialogue. There are a few under-the-breath words thrown in by the cast, but only for comic effect. Loar adapts seven of O’Neill’s early plays that, unless you are steeped in his considerably large body of work, you most likely have never heard of. The stage is filled with the basics such as a table, a couple of chairs and benches and lined with props of all sorts. A narrator sits with a script and microphone at stage left. She reads off the stage directions with very little affectation as the actors create the action. The seven scripts are packed into 75 minutes of pure comedy that works on the audience on different levels.
One level is Loar’s inventive direction. There is a seemingly endless stream of bits and business that are hilarious and often subtle and the breakneck pace of the entire thing will keep you on the edge of your seat. The narrator reads the stage directions with little space in between the lines so the actors often have to scramble just to keep up and that is funny in its own way. O’Neill’s oddly precise and often exceedingly eloquent stage directions are funny on a level in and of themselves. Another level is the contrast between the style and content. The style is tongue-in-cheek so even though the material may be describing a dire situation, sailors lost at sea or a murderous love affair, the comedy rises from the actors’ ability to pour sarcasm onto the surface of it.
As is typical of NY Neo-Futurists performance style the actors do not play characters but rather they remain themselves in each moment and find the comedy hidden in the material. The cast, Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, Cara Francis, Connor Kalista, Jacquelyn Landgraf, Erica Livingston and Lauren Sharpe, are magnificent. It is clear that they have been working together for a while because they play off each other so well. They have mastered the subtleties of wordless performance. They made me laugh out loud with a simple look, gesture or movement. Their cohesiveness is impressive. This is a truly great ensemble performance.
Loar stays true to O’Neill’s intentions and that’s where much of the comedy arises. While the show is hilarious I did begin to feel like it was the same thing stretched unchangingly for a bit too long. Each play is performed in pretty much the exact same manner with the exception of one where three actors play a single character. Perhaps more of this sort of thing would help to make it seem like something else might happen when they move to the next play. Despite this, the cast always finds something new and funny so it is not as if you’ll ever lose interest. This show is an absolute scream. Ingeniously adapted and flawlessly performed, this is downtown theater at its best.