You can pretty much tell the kind of ride you’re in for with a Eugene O’Neill play by the statistics. If it’s one of those that gets performed fairly often—Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, Ah! Wilderness! and etc.—chances are it’s at least tolerable and, if done well, really exciting, especially if you’re discovering a work for the first time. You kind of forgive a lot—overwrting almost to the point of absurdity and a “lyric realism” use of language that means to be, in cadence and elevation, poetic—and frequently is—but just as often veers into hyperbolic melodrama and labored use of slang: sometimes (one hates to say it about one of the Greats, but it cannot be denied) his ear was that tin. But it’s well worth granting absolution for the ideas, the characters, the evocative moods: alone, his oft-repeated theme that people need pipe-dreams and fantasies to temper absolute truth or they simply can’t survive, is bracing and courageous.
But the plays in his catalog that get performed less often are rarities for a reason, and the reason is that they simply don’t hold up. Most are admirable in a way, for being brave experiments with style, story and/or theme—but best appreciated in print. In the harsh exposure of production, they falter, and that’s exactly why the recent limited run of Desire Under the Elms was cut short. This was O’Neill’s attempt at combining modern drama with Greek tragedy, setting it on a farm in New England, 1850—in the take of a sexual triangle among a young man bitterly running his father’s farm (Pablo Schrieber); the elderly but robust and abusive father, returned after a long absence (Brian Dennehy); and his much younger, very sensual and highly materialistic new bride (Carla Gugino).
Director Robert Falls cut a passel of minor characters and incident, zeroing in on the central trio and two dimwitted, workhorse brothers (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman) who jump ship early, before dad’s return, boiling Desire down to an essential 100 intermissionless minutes, and it is still, at times, interminable. But I’ll say this much for the effort, and I mean it as whlehearted, unequivocal praise—
On a strikingly designed set, against an abstract background of hanging rocks, he and his cast fearlessly embraced the Greek grandeur intended, and the big gesture of acting operatically, with little subtext—indeed, rather with declaration, melodrama, sensationalism and bombast—and nary an ounce of naturalism. I daresay, it is very likely the sensationalism of the text that kept the debut Broadway run going for an astonishing 420 performances and three theatre transfers—in the ‘20s, it must have seemed racy as hell, and I'd bet anything it was the selling point. Of course, raciness then is rather tame now; though, again, Falls and company were right on the front lines about it: They did everything possible to infuse the sexual tensions—and releases—with an aggressive, tastefully graphic candor commensurate with a new millennium sensibility. And because of that, I don’t begrudge them the effort: it was really something to see the actors just go there. And I have to say, as I’ve said in other reviews, Carla Gugino, though hardly a theatrical “secret” anymore, is still an explosion waiting to happen—more than ever she teeters on being recognized as one of the great leading ladies of the American stage.
The less said about Don’t Leave it All to Your Children, a musical revue about growing old—presumably with grace and humor—the kinder. Variety TV show veteran Saul Ilson has “written” old jokes, treacly monologues and amateurish songs to celebrate his subject, but it’s all so hoary and clichéd as to put one in the mood for a hastened funeral. His cast members—60s sitcom mainstay Ronnie Schell, Steve Rossi (late of Allen & Rossi), Marcia Rodd and Barbara Minkus—are all to some extent famous, and my guess is, also friends of his, doing the show in NYC as a favor, the better to legitimized it being quickly packaged for licensing to community and old age venues. They clearly all know the material is bad, each has what poker players call a “tell” (the men have more than a few, and Mr. Schell occasionally displays his consciously, hoping to mitigate the damage), but they put on a good, if painful-to-witness, front of sincerity. Ilson “directed” as well.
Finally, Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical, which has been kicking around regionally and in London for some years, has at last landed in NYC at St. Luke’s Theatre, where it alternates with Lansky, in a no-frills, competent production directed by Pamela Hall.
It’s a kind of bio-musical about the relationship between the legendary Kaye and his behind-the-scenes “show runner” and special material provider, wife Sylvia Fine. The score consists of songs Kaye made famous (most of them first rate material) and “book” songs about the title characters by Robert McElwaine (book & lyrics) and Bob Bain (music), which are competent and mild, rather like the script. Also like the leading lady: The problem is, most of us know the Danny Kaye persona extremely well, and the Sylvia Fine persona not at all, so she has to be “invented” by the actress, and the invention, ideally, needs to match Danny in strength and detail. Alas, Kimberly Faye Greenberg hasn’t the requisite wattage or nuance.
Which is too bad, because Brian Childers as Kaye doesn’t so much imitate him as channel his essence almost to the point of possession. He has the “hand business,” the funny laughs, the various voices, the unique vibrato, the diction (down to the smallest passing vowel sound) and the physicality so nailed that at times you almost forget entirely that it isn’t actually Kaye up there. What he doesn’t quite have, and it’s just about his only “tell,” is Kaye’s low-note register—he can’t scoop as low or as funny, and those notes (really only called for at the top of the show, needless to say, a bad place for them as he’s making his first impression) leave him exposed. But when he recovers, he recovers bigtime and the illusion is so magical it just about makes up for the lackluster show built around it.