A CurtainUp Review
The Hairy Ape
By Elyse Sommer
Mounting the play to accommodate the eight scenes with locations ranging from the ship's furnace room, to its deck, to Fifth Avenue (its mannequin-like figures making this the one totally abstract scene), a prison and Central Park's Zoo was quite a challenge for this small theatre. But Eugene Lee's moveable, two-tier set meets this challenge with striking ingenuity. The small stage is actually a plus in carrying out the playwright's stage instructions, since it lends itself to the stylized choreography used to depict the stokers at work in their horribly cramped space, the tableau of Fifth Avenue church goers and and Yank's incarceration at Blackwell Island Prison.
Director Ciaràn O'Reilly has found a powerful interpreter for the doomed Yank in Greg Derelian. And he has seen to it that this man who calls himself a hairy ape conveys a clear vision of Rodin's The Thinker — also part of O'Neill's stage directions. Thus it's evident, even during the first cacophonous scene in the "forecastle" or furnace room of a luxury ship, that Yank, though very much a part of the rough language and animalistic physicality of the stokers' world, is somewhat more complex. As his noisy co-workers curse and carouse, he admonishes them to "Nix on de loud noise. Can't youse see I'm trying to t'ink?" He is not thrown by their ignoring his demand with "Don't be cracking you head with ut, Yank. . .drink, don't think!" However, the visit from the heiress (Kerry Bishé) who want a glimpse of the Forecastle and her horrified reaction to encountering his stare and raised shovel, has the effect of putting an explosive underneath that Rodin-like image.
From that first vivid scene with its hellish glow (courtesy of Brian Nason's lighting) and with the stokers so cramped in their tight quarters that they can't stand straight, Yank's descent from a world he at least belongs in to his stumbling from place to place in search of a part of society that won't regard him as invisible or subhuman is strong stuff. The ten-actor ensemble, several of whom double and triple up roles, add to this richly atmospheric production's strengths.
Overall, this is an absorbing example of one of our great playwright's early works. But as the director has adhered admirably to the playwright's intent he has also made no attempt to diddle with the weaknesses that were always present in this play.
The most fatal weakness, and the one that prevents the play's impact from staying with you once you leave the theater, is the underdeveloped role of Mildred. Kerry Bishé is certainly pretty enough to be the vision that Yank takes for a ghost, but she can't overcome her character's fatal flaw: O'Neill builds up her background in the one scene above deck with her aunt (Delphi Harrington); he lets us see the mix of restlessness and idle curiosity that spur her to take a social interest in the working class. But no sooner does she trigger Yank's rage at being seen as an ape, than she's cut out of the script, never to be seen again. Despite this flaw, Yank's long days' journey in search of some place where he will fit in is well worth watching, one portrait of a large gallery of O'Neill characters doomed to end up worse off than before, Humpty Dumpty-like too broken to be put together again.
For links to other reviews of O'Neill plays, see our O'Neill Backgrounder
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
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