Review - The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays
I've heard of some directors who, as soon as they've taken on a new play, grab a black marker and scratch out every stage direction the playwright wrote into the script, as though the author's only business was to write dialogue and allow each individual stager to create the rest.
Adapter/director Christopher Loar has done the exact opposite with The New York Neo-Futurists' smart and daffy The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, honoring, with gentle teasing, America's first important dramatist; a writer so intent on protecting his plays from misinterpreting actors that he became legendary for including highly detailed and occasionally baffling instructions in every script.
THE OLDER MAN suddenly remembers the telegram he has. He takes it from his pocket as if to give it to JACK. He realizes the full significance of what the telegram says. He goes to burn it in the campfire but hesitates.
LUCY enters from right. She stops in an attitude of strained attention, evidently listening for some sound. Hearing nothing, she goes to the table and throws herself into a chair beside it.
He rises from his chair and gets ready to crush her with the weight of his eloquence.
That's just a sampling of the narrative spoken with cheery authority by Jacquelyn Landgraf as she sits at a corner desk while the rest of the company (Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, Cara Francis, Connor Kalista, Erica Livingston, and Lauren Sharpe), mostly in silence, perform her instructions with hilarious literal earnestness. The plays selected include several one-acts, including the 1913 effort, A Wife For Life, and the sea play, Bound East for Cardiff (1914), topped off with the 1916 full-length, Now I Ask You.
The fast moving romp is full of the kind of sketch comedy craziness reminiscent of The Carol Burnett Show, with characters popping in and out of scenes trying to make sense of their assignments, climaxing in one of the most audacious stage directions a playwright could include in a text, which the company fully commits to.
It's that full commitment to telling these stories that keeps the 90 minute performance from wearing thin and seeming gimmicky. While specifics of each play will remain a mystery to those unfamiliar with them, Loar and his company do a terrific job of conveying a sense of each piece, even as their antics spoof the material.
But whether you're a Provincetown scholar or an O'Neill neophyte, you should have great fun with this one.
Last season, playwright Richard Nelson invited us to spend election night 2010 at the Rhinebeck home of schoolteacher Barbara Apple and her aging uncle, Benjamin as her left-leaning sisters and brother gathered for dinner and conversation about family matters and the country's political climate. Titled That Hopey Changey Thing after a sarcastic post-election quip Sarah Palin once directed at Obama voters, Nelson referred to it as a "disposable" play, written quickly and heavily steeped in the national conversation of its time.
But perhaps Hopey Changey shouldn't be trashed so quickly, as Nelson's newest, Sweet and Sad, reunites us with the Apples for their September 11th, 2011 gathering. Directed by the playwright, Sweet and Sad offers the same outstanding cast playing the same roles in the second of an intended series of plays. (Place your bets now on what important date the third play will be set.)