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.)
Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) tends to the needs of Benjamin (Jon Devries), a retired actor suffering from bouts with amnesia, with the help of her recently divorced sister Marian (Laila Robins), who is now living with them. Up from Manhattan is their sibling Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a writer, and her boyfriend, Tim (Shuler Hensley), an actor who greatly admires Benjamin and loves talking shop with him. Also up from New York is their brother, Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer who, as explained in the previous play, left his job at the State Attorney General's office to take a high-paying position with a firm that backs the Republican Party. Richard retains his liberal values but his disillusionment with the Democratic Party makes it difficult for him to resist taking sarcastic jabs at the current administration.
After an early dinner, the evening plans are to attend a memorial service at the high school where Benjamin will be singing in the chorus, but before that the afternoon is filled with conversations of family matters, with sibling loyalty occasionally having to keep tensions from rising. At first there is little mention of the significance of the day, except that the New Yorkers are all happy to be out of the city, but gradually we learn of more direct connections to 9/11 and the characters' feelings about memorializing them. This is not a play about eyewitness accounts or losing a loved one that day, but more about the questions many Americans are still asking ten years later.
As made clear in the first play, the trilogy takes its subdued style from the plays of Anton Chekhov. Elegantly scripted, thoughtful and humorous, Sweet and Sad is performed with convincing naturalism by a perfect ensemble. While having seen That Hopey Changey Thing would certainly enhance one's appreciation of Sweet and Sad, the evening stands firmly on its own as anything but disposable.
Meeting cute, in this case, involves a romantic encounter at the university computer lab for two grad students: computer scientist Elliot (Karl Miller) and molecular biologist Molly (Aubrey Dollar). He offers to write up a program that will speed up the analyzing of her data; something about yeast.
Though Elliot is attached at the time, he admirably tries to break things off cleanly - though not especially gracefully - with his girlfriend, Lauren (Meredith Forlenza, very good in multiple roles) before inviting Molly over to test his work. Perhaps it's his spirited explanation of the infamous Traveling Salesman Problem that lures her into his bed, and the next day she's telling her faculty advisor Don (Brian Avers, also in multiple roles) that the sexual part of their relationship is over.
When they start linking up professionally as well as romantically, the progress of their experiment becomes a metaphor for what's happening in their relationship, as they expose their unhealthy romantic habits the same way yeast molecules display repetitive patterns.
Director Pam McKinnon does a terrific job of not allowing the density of the play's language to hold down the production's humorous buoyancy. Miller and Dollar make for a completely winning couple, with his tongue-tied awkwardness meshing well with her perky exuberance.
The play can use some trimming, as the characters tend to get loquacious when they're talking shop and the audience must sit through numerous speeches loaded with technical jargon. There's also a scene late in the evening where the author throws in a theatrical metaphor meant to reflect the state of his protagonists' romance which is just too clumsy and obvious right from the start. But despite these glitches, Completeness is a fun little fling.