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A CurtainUp Review
Drunken With What: A Study of Mourning Becomes Electra
By Charles Wright
The TMT O'Neill fest will culminate in spring 2017 with a production of the whole Electra trilogy, which Per Hallström, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, called "the author's grandest work." Hallström was speaking in 1936, two decades before anyone had a notion of what heights O'Neill would scale with his masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night.
Mourning Becomes Electra, inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus and set in Civil War era New England, is seldom performed now. A 2009 New York revival, directed by Scott Elliott, was marred by ineffective casting. That production is memorable primarily for incidental music by Pat Metheny. In the right hands, though, Electra is a compelling drama of Freudian entanglement and off-kilter family dynamics.
Drunken with What, which runs a fleet one hundred minutes without intermission, is an idiosyncratic overview of Electra. Every word is by O'Neill, but much of his monumental text is deleted.
O'Neill's drama takes place immediately after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Off-stage the nation's warring factions are reuniting; what's onstage is the sour end of a patrician New England family, whose members are as flawed and ill-fated as the characters in Aeschylus's tragedy.
At the beginning of the trilogy, the men of this American House of Atreus — Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon and his son Orin (both played by Satya Bhabha) — are expected home from service in the Union forces. They're awaited with impatience by daughter/sister Lavinia (Eunice Wong) and with trepidation by wife/mother Christine.
Christine is embroiled in a torrid affair with an outlander named Adam Brant (also played by Bhabha). Under Brant's spell, Christine vows to poison her husband on his first night home. Lavinia is wise to her mother's treachery and has figured out that Brant is an unacknowledged (and vengeful) Mannon relative, son of the General's scapegrace uncle by a woman whom the previous generation of Mannons considered dHallstrÖmclassè.
In Drunken with What director David Herskovits places the Mannons' story at a considerable remove from the audience by utilizing only the back four or five rows of seats in the historic Abrons Arts Center. The rest of the auditorium is unoccupied and off-limits, except to members of the cast who sometimes wander down from the stage. But most of the action takes place behind the proscenium, many yards from the spectators.
The actors are outfitted with conspicuous spaghetti microphones that run down their foreheads. Herskovits, who is sound designer as well as stage director, controls audience focus by adjusting the volume of the amplification system so that, at various moments, the actors' voices come across distinctly and, at others, are semi-audible or lost.
Although the players perform some scenes in a straightforward manner, they punctuate much of the text with highly stylized gestures and stage business that bring to mind the extravagance of Kabuki. At times, actors engage in histrionics of the "ain't-got-the-money-for-the-mortgage-on-the-farm" variety, reminiscent of mid-19th century potboilers such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Drunkard.
With its abbreviated text and acting that's freighted with postmodernist irony, Drunken with What neither tells the whole Mannon saga nor sounds much like the groundbreaking work for which O'Neill is noted. Leonore Doxsee's cartoonish scenic design, which includes some visual jokes (undisclosed here in deference to a strict no-spoilers editorial policy) supports the iconoclasm of Herskovits' vision. That vision is circumspect but frisky, unfettered by literary-historical niceties, and antithetical to emotional involvement. It's O'Neill from a Brechtian angle.
Playing a dipsomaniacal family retainer, Mary Neufeld serves as Greek chorus and sociological foil to the patrician Mannons. As Christine, Weeks is at once feline and magnetic, a dazzling contrast to Wong's chilly, unyielding rectitude. Bhabha, who embodies all the Mannon men, demonstrates a striking range, shifting easily among three roles and disparate ages.
Despite the efforts of such game performers, Drunken with What fails to provide a sense of the cumulative power of O'Neill's magnum opus or the complexity of the Mannons. Almost undetectable is the heat of incestuous passion that forges a bond between Lavinia and Orin in the later scenes of the trilogy. This sexual dynamic, essential to an understanding of the brother's demise, is smothered by the high speed with which Drunken with What skims across the surface and around the dramatic land mines of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Drunken with What is a worthwhile stab at blowing the dust off a classic and assessing it without solemnity, though it may be perplexing to those who aren't O'Neill enthusiasts or aficionados of the downtown theater scene. Here's hoping that TMT's promised 2017 production of the entire trilogy will allow playgoers to get closer to the characters and to hear all the words of the actors who play them. If not, that will be an occasion for mourning.
Editor's Note: For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to plays we've reviewed (including the above mentioned Electra), see our O'Neill Backgrounder .