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A CurtainUp Review
The Hairy Ape

I scared her? Why de hell should I scare her? Who de hell is she? Ain't she de same as me? Hairy ape, huh? [With his old confident bravado.] I'll show her I'm better'n her, if she on'y knew it. I belong and she don't, see! I move and she's dead! Twenty-five knots a hour, dats me! Dat carries her but I make dat. She's on'y baggage.— Yank
Hairy Ape
The Hairy Ape set rotates around the audience at the Armory (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Before I continue, a bit of do-it-now advice: Get on line or on the phone now and see if you can nab a ticket before this brilliantly staged and vibrantly performed production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape ends its run at the Park Avenue Armory.

Despite it's subtitle — "A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life In Eight Scenes" — there's nothing to laugh about in O'Neill 1922 expressionistic play. But there's plenty to keep you enthralled as you watch those eight scenes unfold in this stunning production.

This The Hairy Ape is not just a transfer of an earlier British production or a light entertainment, as exemplified by The Play That Goes Wrong currently at the Lyceum theater. What it is, however, is a splendid adaptation by Director Richard Jones and his designers to make their innovative stagecraft and interpretation fit this grand venue and the all-American cast headed by Bobby Cannavale.

Cannavale is incredibly watchable as the brutish tough laborer in the hellish stokehole of a luxury ship for whose passengers he and his fellow laborers supply the fire. The revolted outcry of the daintily dressed young heiress upon coming face to face with Yank doesn't need words to express that she sees him as a filthy beast. Somehow this does something to Yank's brash confidence in his strength and sense that what he does is important and that people like that disdainful young are just baggage. What follows is a frenzied journey to regain his sense of "belonging."

Though O'Neill's dialect is a challenging mouthful, Cannavale ably tames it, and at the same time meets the role's ape-like physical demands. He leaps on and off benches, hangs from the rafters, and only occasionally sits down deep in thought (an obvious evocation of Rodin's "The Thinker" referenced in O'Neill's stage notes). All these verbal and physical pyrotechnics probably cause Cannavale to shed several pounds at each performance — but it all adds up to his being an intensely heart-breaking, often gasp-inducing stage presence.

The rest of the cast is also superb: Catherine Combs as the willfully naive heiress Mildred, Becky Ann Baker as her wry aunt and chaperone, David Costabile as the philosophical stoker Paddy, and Henry Stram as the head of a worker's organization with whom Yank seeks a way out of his sudden despairing sense of not belonging anywhere.

The actors playing the named characters are less fully developed but vital nevertheless since they also participate as members of the ensemble that features so importantly in this uniquely stylized play. Outstanding and full of subtleties as the overall acting is, the staging contributes as much to making this a not to be missed theatrical outing of this season.

It's quite an achievement to honor the playwright's detailed stage directions meant to insure an expressionistic staging that nevertheless gives an impression of realism. In this New York adaptation of their previous London production, Mr. Jones and his team have doubled that achievement by keeping their production from looking lost in that cavernous space. On the contrary, the way they've mounted their sets on a platform that moves like a conveyer belt around the audience and have also used the space all around that platform somehow feels as if this is where and how Yank's tragic journey was always meant to play out.

Those sliding moving pieces by Stewart Laing provide truly spectacular visual support for the various locations: the cage-like stokehole. . . a section of the ship's promenade deck represented by house-sized letters . . . the especially striking Fifth Avenue scene. . . the scene in a prison cell that sends Yank to the headquarters of a workers' group . . .and Yank's final and inevitable meet-up with his simian counterpart. It's all breathtakingly lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin, and aurally enhanced by composer and sound designer Sarah Angliss.

The actors' fluid back an forth shifts between realism and highly stylized movements are expertly enabled by choreographer Aletta Collins — most memorably so when we see the stokers at work, and in the Fifth Avenue segment where a group of masked society folks do a dance macabre around the miserably bewildered Yank.

The raked seating provides excellent sight lines for even those sitting at the rear of the Drill Hall's large auditorium. The fact that the seats are a blazing yellow like the various cage-like set pieces and ensemble members' shoes adds to our sense of being right in the middle of the surreal world Jones and his designers have created.

Even the programs, which are not your usual Playbill, are bright yellow folders so that they seem part of the seat. But make sure not to sit on yours, since, besides the usual program notes those yellow folders include an interesting background feature by O'Neill biographer Robert M. Dowling. According to Mr. Dowling's essay The Hair Ape builds on the thematic structure of O'Neill's even earlier expressionistic play, The Emperor Jones, which also stripped its initially self-confident title character of his delusions over the course of eight scenes.

As luck would have it the Irish Rep Theater Company in Chelsea is celebrating its 29th anniversary by remounting co-founder and artistic director Ciaran O'Reilly's very fine and also real-surreal production of The Emperor Jones. Therefore you can double your pleasure by seeing both the Pullman porter-turned-emperor downtown and the ape-like stoker turned frenzied outsider in a world ruled by the rich and powerful.

As Richard Jones has achieved astonishing results in the way he's used the Armory's huge theater, so Mr. O'Reilly has similarly displayed his ability to make a big impression within the confines and resources of a small but invaluable theater. In fact, my only previous live viewing of The Hairy Ape, was Mr. O'Reilly's memorably impressive 2006 production. ( My review of that production).

While The Hairy Ape is almost a hundred years old, there's nothing dated about O'Neill's aim to expose the divide between rich and poor. That divide is more evident than ever in the age of Trump. The out of work, under-educated workers who trusted a billionaire to bring back the jobs they need to survive even though they are monotonous and often dangerous are the heirs of those stokers.

If you'd like to read the original script script, including the stage directions, you can download it from Project Gutenberg:

The 1944 movie which was far less true to O'Neill's vision for the play is available for viewing at YouTube:

For more about Eugene O'Neill's and links to plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, check out the O'Neill chapter of our Playwrights'Album here

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The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Richard Jones
Cast: Bobby Cannavale (Robert "Yank" Smith), Becky Ann Baker (Mildred's Aunt, Ensemble), David Costabile (Paddy, Ensemble), Catherine Combs (Mildred Douglas, Ensemble),Henry Stram (Secretary of a left wing organization, Ensemble), Chris Bannow (Stoker,Ensemble), Tommy Bracco (Stoker,Ensemble), Emmanuel Brown (Stoker,Ensemble), Nicholas Bruder (Stoker,Ensemble), Phil Hill (Gorilla,Ensemble), Cosmo Jarvis (Prisoner, Ensemble), Mark Junek (2nd Officer, Ensemble), Jamar Williams (Stoker,Ensemble), Isadora Wolfe (Dance Captain, Ensemble), Amos Wolff (Stoker,Ensemble).
Designer: Stewart Laing
Choreographer:Aletta Collins
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Composer - Sound Designer: Sarah Angliss
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Stage Manager: Matthew Leiner
Production Stage Manager: Thom Widmann
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street
From 3/25/17; opening 3/30/17;closing 4/22/17.
Performances: Tuesday–Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm Sunday at 2:00pm,Wednesday at 2:00pm and 7:30pm (April 12 and 19)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 12th matinee performance

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