"Desire Under the Elms" is the kind of play in which characters wail "Noooooooooo!" upon realizing they've killed the wrong person. At another point, someone actually shakes a fist at the heavens.
Robert Falls' production of the Eugene O'Neill drama, imported from Chicago, unfurls at a fever pitch. The set, the sentiments, the accents -- everything is dialed up to 11 and played completely straight.
Leave your sense of irony at home and embrace the insanity, and you won't find a more intense experience on Broadway.
Mere seconds into the play, it's painfully obvious things can only end in tears. This ineluctability is writ large in Walt Spangler's set, a threatening jumble of oversize rocks, some strewn about the stage, others perilously hanging above the characters. (Trees are nowhere to be seen; this is more "Desire Under the Boulders.")
The New England house everybody wants is also up in the rafters, looming on top of the accursed Cabot family in a striking visualization of the way it constantly preys on their minds. "Purty" is how it's described several times during the play, but what we see is anything but.
In this oppressive, elemental landscape, men are toiling, grimy, sweaty, grunting.
They carry stones; they cut open a hog's carcass. The sound of beating drums swells. Such an environment can only produce poisonous flowers: greed, violence, selfishness, murder.
Eben (Pablo Schreiber), the youngest son of patriarch Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy), covets the estate. He moves one step closer to his goal by buying out his two half-brothers. But then one day, his father returns with a young bride, Abbie (Carla Gugino).
She is immediately engulfed in lust. First for the farm, then, inevitably, for her stepson.
Eben, who had become almost feminized upon his mother's death (he's often shown wearing an apron), regains the masculine upper hand by engaging in an affair with Abbie. At long last, he's about to have everything he wants: His elderly father can't last that long, after all, especially if fate gets a bit of a push.
Falls leads us through the increasingly heated situation with a sure hand, imparting a fraught sexual tension even to a series of domestic snapshots beautifully set to Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet."
The director and his cast are particularly good at creating the feeling that the characters are puppets whose strings are pulled by forces greater than they are.
You have to accept "Desire Under the Elms" on these terms, which blend tragedy (the Greeks loom large) and the outlandish melodramas of the '40 and '50s. It's hard not to be reminded of films such as "Duel in the Sun" or "Baby Doll" at times, especially when Gugino fully deploys her sultry, bruised sensuality.
There's no better proof of modern Hollywood's artistic bankruptcy than the fact that this actress, as smart as she is beautiful, is stuck in supporting girlfriend parts on-screen. We should count ourselves lucky that following "After the Fall" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," Gugino seems to have made theater a regular part of her life.
A lust for sex and a lust for real estate are familiar passions to many, notwithstanding the plummeting co-op market and those libido-dampening Dow numbers. But these primal drives take on an eerie, entrancing strangeness in the gutsy revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” that opened Monday night at the St. James Theater. Portraying a stepmother and stepson doomed to enact a feverish, erotic dance that will ultimately destroy them, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber fight like tigers in a cage over a legacy of land, even as their bodies cleave violently together, aflame with urgent need.
First seen at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where it was the centerpiece of a winter festival devoted to O’Neill, this visually spectacular production wraps his powerful but problematic 1924 play in a big bear hug, making no attempt to throw a blanket of soft naturalism over its sometimes glaring flaws. On the contrary, the director Robert Falls, who led the last Broadway revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” honors O’Neill’s ambition to transplant Greek tragedy to American soil by mounting the play on an epic scale, even adding a few expressionist touches of his own. (A recording by Bob Dylan is unexpectedly heard.)
Do not bother to scan the sky-high rock piles of Walt Spangler’s set for glimpses of the titular trees, however. Mr. Falls has eliminated them, allowing the close, coddling maternal symbolism they are meant to provide to go by the wayside. It is not much missed. “Desire Under the Elms” dates from what might be called O’Neill’s High Freudian phase, which would also include the trilogy “Mourning Becomes Electra” (a modern-day retelling of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”) and “Strange Interlude,” a long evening’s journey into the tortured heart of a neurotic named Nina.
Although the plot of “Desire” is drawn directly from Euripides’ “Hippolytus,” and O’Neill played down Freud’s influence, the Oedipal instinct is front and center in the psyche of the young Eben Cabot (Mr. Schreiber), who still mourns his mother’s death and bitterly blames his father, Ephraim (Brian Dennehy), for working her as hard as he works himself and his three sons on their New England farm. (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman play Eben’s brothers, loutish brutes who abandon the farm to pursue gold rush dreams in California.)
When Ephraim brings home a blushing rose of a new bride, Abbie (Ms. Gugino), Eben is enraged at the potential loss of his inheritance, until the hypnotic allure of his stepmother begins tearing down his emotional defenses.
The process is enacted with captivating magnetism by these two exciting actors. Rarely has sexual passion been depicted with such tense, animalistic ferocity on a Broadway stage. After a somewhat ponderous start, during which we have a little too much time to marinate in the stagy, countrified dialect O’Neill employs, the temperature rockets upward when Abbie and Eben meet and exchange a long glare in the farmhouse kitchen. Mr. Schreiber, with a backwoods face and beefcake body, radiates a febrile, simmering fury in a performance of taut intensity. From beneath a dark fringe of hair, Eben’s eyes glow with compulsion, recognizing in the delicate-seeming Abbie a formidable competitor, and scorning her as a “harlot” tarnishing the memory of his sacred mother.
Abbie’s approach is more accommodating. She has learned the harsh compromises life demands and made a cruel bargain by marrying the flinty, much older Ephraim. In Eben, her rival for the home she has finally found, she also instinctively sees a source of sexual and emotional consolation. Embracing the florid extremes of the role with a thrilling bravado, Ms. Gugino makes us see with painful clarity how these two conflicting desires corrode Abbie’s psyche so completely that they are finally blended into one consuming need to retain Eben’s love at all cost. It is a brave, luminous, ultimately haunting performance.
As the ornery Ephraim, proud of his independence but secretly longing for understanding, Mr. Dennehy has grown into the role since the Chicago run. His craggy face resembles a worn rock in which time and experience have etched hard lines, but Mr. Dennehy didn’t before seem to possess in his bones the grim, flinty spirit of the man. He does now, at least in fierce flashes. During the scene in which Ephraim exults in his new fatherhood — taunting Eben with the loss of his inheritance, unaware that his son has fathered Abbie’s child — Mr. Dennehy exudes the hungry malice of a jackal tearing away at a rodent.
“God’s hard, not easy,” Ephraim observes with a measure of satisfaction. The same could be said for many a second-tier O’Neill play. This great American playwright never shied from a dramatic challenge, even if he sensed that his talents might not be equal to the demands placed on them. His weaknesses are extravagantly apparent in “Desire Under the Elms.” The writing can be repetitive and painfully overexplicit, the attempts at poetry blunt and strained. Rather than achieving the grand synthesis of tragedy and humble domestic drama that O’Neill envisioned, the play sometimes comes across as melodrama overblown to mythic proportions.
And yet O’Neill wrote with a deep understanding of the destructive clash between the ferocity of human needs and the hard exigencies of life, and held a deep belief in the power of drama to imbue human experience — even the most sad or sordid — with a moving grandeur. With Ms. Gugino, Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Dennehy giving performances of unflagging commitment and exposed feeling, the production manages to transcend the play’s flaws to transmit the penetrating truth of O’Neill’s underlying vision, of the ineradicable human need to possess and be possessed.
Nobody could accuse Robert Falls of taking the safe route with "Desire Under the Elms." As in Simon McBurney's "All My Sons" revival earlier this season, the director layers on bold auteurial flourishes in a stylized bid to fire up the molten Greek tragedy in a naturalistic American drama. And as with that production, responses will range from rejection to rapture. Transferring from Chicago's Goodman Theater, where it was the centerpiece of a Eugene O'Neill festival, the staging is grimly overwrought, with an intensity that never quite translates into emotional impact, yet its unyielding harshness is undeniably compelling.
Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy) is a hard, mean man ruled only by a hard god. His domain in Falls' and designer Walt Spangler's expressionistic vision is not the traditional New England farm fringed by elm trees; it's more like some barren planet whose rocky terrain is being reshaped into a prison wall around Cabot's land. Ephraim's sons by his first marriage, Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver), are grunting brutes who serve as their father's chain gang, hauling boulders all day and stuffing food down their throats like inmates of the toughest cellblock.
More rocks dangle from thick ropes above, some of them visible through a murky scrim as if underwater, while the house also remains suspended on ropes for most of the action. Their home and their land literally hang over these characters' heads, out of reach and impervious to ownership, offering more menace than stability or sanctuary.
Striking if not exactly subtle, the forceful visuals are indicative of the lengths to which Falls goes to swell O'Neill's brooding melodrama into deafening operatic tragedy. Michael Philippi's scorching lights and Richard Woodbury's music also hammer that agenda. The latter is used both to underscore dialogue and in wordless stretches such as a hulking opening ballet performed by Simeon and Peter by way of Tod Browning. Accompanied by jungle drumming and animal noises, they lug rocks and tear the entrails from a butchered pig while their more gentle half-brother, Eben (Pablo Schreiber), dons an apron and fries bacon.
Eben has inherited not only his mother's household duties but also a bitter grudge over the transferal of her family's farm to Ephraim after she was driven by overwork into an early grave. When 76-year-old Ephraim returns from town with gold-digging young third wife Abbie (Carla Gugino), Eben buys out his half-brother's shares in the farm and starts squaring off with his new "Ma."
One of Falls' most unconventional touches is an anachronistic musical montage set to Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet," in which Abbie cleans and takes possession of the house, pegging out laundry while drinking in Eben's muscled body as he steps in and out of the bathtub. "It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there," sings Dylan, articulating a despair that's about to get uglier. Equally audacious is the torrid mime sequence in which Abbie's and Eben's burning souls are drawn together while blowhard Ephraim boasts of his Herculean achievement in turning a pile of rocks into the coveted farm.
Embellishing a production pruned to an intermissionless one hour 45 minutes, these florid directorial strokes might be inorganic and to some extent take the audience out of the drama, but they're nothing if not arresting.
The fatal turning point comes when Abbie lures Eben into his mother's hallowed parlor to consummate their quasi-Oedipal love. Her initial plan is to secure the farm by making Ephraim believe the son born out of that tryst is his. But when Eben denounces her as a cold schemer, the unexpected depth of her love drives Abbie to murder.
The play's liberal doses of psychosexual mayhem, carnality and horror could easily teeter into melodramatic camp, particularly when channeled through such baroque direction. But Gugino's and Schreiber's performances keep it grounded. Both of their impulsive characters require lurching shifts, from wariness and hostility through recklessness and surrender to violent passion, torment and atonement. The actors claw their way through the heightened emotions and idiomatic dialogue without sacrificing dramatic integrity, and the heat between them is palpable. Abbie's suppressed yearning for love and Eben's agonizing hatred for his tyrannical father are conveyed in performances that withhold nothing.
O'Neill veteran Dennehy's work is less surprising, but he cuts a commanding figure with a malevolent glint in his eye, even if his thunderous growling and bellowing does become wearing. The actor's most effective moments are the quieter ones -- his mumbled confession of unease in a house that affords him no peace, sending him out to the barn to sleep among the cows; or his quizzical final glance at Eben and Abbie, seeing them as strangers.
If the pathos of these tragic figures gets muffled beneath all the conceptual weight, Falls certainly can't be faulted for underselling the fatalistic themes of spiritual imprisonment, greed, lust and retribution. Call his "Desire Under the Elms" overblown or unmodulated; just don't call it timid.