Who knew there was such a lode of priceless, unheralded Eugene O’ Neill material out there, and just under our noses? The New York Neo-Futurists found it by digging in a place some of us are kicking ourselves for not thinking of.
Many cultural eras have come and gone since O’Neill’s day, but the early 20th century playwright’s works have not gone out of theatrical fashion. He still offers something to audiences. Perhaps no playwright has understood psychological idiosyncrasies as deeply as O’Neill; few to none have wound their characters in so many layers of emotional complexity as O’Neill; and no playwright I can think of has explored insanity as unflinchingly as O’Neill.
But anyone who has read his plays knows there are certain quirks in his writing style that can be quite annoying. You see, Eugene O’Neill was a playwright with a nitpicking and holistic vision for his plays. And he trusted exactly no one—not directors, not stage managers, not prop people, and actors least of all—to convey his vision properly. So, he wrote lengthy, and sometimes pointless stage directions in his scripts.
And sometimes they are so ridiculous they will make you laugh. Christopher Loar of the New York Neo-Futurists must have suffered through enough of them in his day that he thought that they would make a pretty good comedy. So, that’s what he did, and the play—The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays—is more than a pretty good comedy.
It seems like an inane concept to take all the written dialog out of a play and keep only the stage directions, but Loar has it all figured out. As the performance begins, the half dozen players in the cast—Brendan Donaldson, Daniel Burnam, Cara Francis, Connor Kalista, Erica Livingston, and Lauren Sharp—stand motionless like props. A narrator (Jacqueline Landgraf) walks across the stage, acknowledges the audience, and takes her seat behind a desk with a microphone. When she announces the first play’s name, the cast moves tables, benches and whatnot into position to set up the scene, then acts out whatever stage directions are announced. The effect is like improv theatre without the awkwardness of actual improvisation.
Loar has envisioned this production as the first installment of what will be a series of plays, ultimately covering O’Neill’s entire work. This play, then, covers O’Neill’s formative years from 1913 to 1917. Age and experience would teach the playwright to control his worst impulses, but in these early years his directions can be perplexing, like the classic (unprintable) insult asking someone to do something physically impossible. One example: the narrator reads “her face is a mask of crimson red.” What else can the actor do but smear red face paint on her face?
Other memorable examples include “she is a person who has over-digested novels. She carries herself like a heroine from a Russian novel;” “she stops, and drinks in the beauty of the morning;” “she looks like someone for whom a long sleep was not a long rest;” and the oft-repeated “he has irregular features.” The cast’s response to each (and many more) is hilarious. At other directions, cast members pause for several seconds before responding, letting the audience “drink in” the weirdness of O’Neill’s instruction.
Moments like this abound in the play, as one awkwardly hilarious moment follows another. Landgraf, armed with the rare benefit of having the script in front of her, plays the audience like a yo-yo, occasionally repeating directions, deadpanning when necessary, but often gets caught in the humor of the moment herself. Nothing can be taken too seriously.
Few theatregoers will be familiar with the original plays, and that is probably for the best. The set-ups suggest most of these plays were melodramas, tarred with the sentimentality of a young playwright. This presentation was much more fun.
The play ran from April 19 – 22, 2012 at Arena Stage, Washington, DC.
The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/ Lost Plays
Adapted and directed by Christopher Loar
Produced by The New York Neo-Futurists, presented by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Steve Hallex