If it is possible for a play to succeed with the sound off, then surely The Hairy Ape counts.
This remake of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 classic sprawls across the Park Avenue Armory, that 55,000 square foot 19th century drill hall, the action on the stage playing out as oversized shadows against a paint-crumbling back wall.
This isn’t a play; it’s a piece of art, played out over a crisp ninety minutes. It’s a painting, or a puppet show. You don’t see it, so much as sink into it.
Such pyrotechnics are necessary, since much of O’Neill has trouble translating across the decades since his death, not least The Hairy Ape.
The play is the story of Yank, played energetically here by Bobby Cannavale in what, even though it is a bit of a single-note job, will surely be remembered as a career-defining performance.
Yank, shirtless and covered in enough soot to make him look like a Maori tribesman, shovels coal in the engine room of a transatlantic liner, surrounded by a sycophantic ensemble. He is the ruler of this underworld, stoking the fires to keep the machinery moving, roaring at any crewmember who challenge his supremacy.
All is well enough until a damsel in discontent, Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs), the daughter of a steel magnate, decides to start slumming it and visit the stokehole that is powering her way across the sea.
The sight, particularly of the brutish, profane Yank disgusts her. Yank’s subterranean supremacy is shattered, and he plots revenge.
He makes his way to Fifth Avenue in search of his tormentor, or would-be lover. A group of Upper East Siders, leaving church like a gaggle of masked marionettes, remain impervious to his provocations.
Yet he lands in jail, and then makes his way to a Wobbly union hall, transformed here into a lefty bookstore, where the Bernie Bros, unable to believe that an actual member of the working class has joined them, believe him to be a spy and pummel Yank to the ground.
Not until Yank meets an actual ape does he find some measure of understanding, although by then the distance is too far too bridge.
For New York audiences used to a theater more suffused with a knowing irony, psychological complexity, strained family relations and witty banter, The Hairy Ape takes some getting used to.
By the time he wrote The Hairy Ape, O’Neill had tired of the literary naturalism of early works like The Emperor Jones and not yet reached the fully realized later work like The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
He was moving away from the naturalism of his career and towards central European brand of Expressionism borrowed from August Strindberg that inflates and distorts human pathos and drama in order to strike a blow against capitalist oppression.
Subtle it ain’t in other words, and just as Yank is continually set upon—by his shipmates, the cops, crowds of capitalists at leisure, so does O’Neill’s writing tend to land like a punch in the face.
“I wants to convince yer she was on’y a representative of her clarss. I wants to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness,” says Long, the socialist Irishman (Chris Bannow)—a line apparently meant to dispel questions from anyone who has been on the phone for the first 45 minutes of the play precisely where the audience’s loyalties are supposed to lie.
Or again: “E owns this bloody boat! And you and me, comrades, we’re ’is slaves! And the skipper and mates and engineers, they’re ’is slaves! And she’s ’is bloody daughter and we’re all ’er slaves, too! And she gives ’er orders as ’ow she wants to see the bloody animals below decks and down they takes ’er!”
Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Long.
The show lives or dies on its production values, and in this case it’s the former.
The Park Avenue Armory is perhaps New York’s greatest stage—not in terms of its historical pedigree, but in terms of the possibilities it presents to ambitious directors and designers. The canvas is so large there, it can easily swallow up a production whole, but credit goes to director Richard Jones and Stewart Laing for recognizing the possibilities of the place.
When audiences enter, they cross the Drill Hall’s long floor towards stage fog and blindingly yellow temporary risers. The stage isn’t a stage so much as a conveyor belt that when it moves gives the actors a sense of struggling upstream in their labors. The ensemble appears in a tableau vivant at the start of the action, as if they were indeed mere two-dimensional characters in a morality play.
Each of the eight scenes is somehow more spectacular than the one before it. The deck scene, upon which Mildred announces to her aunt that “I would like to touch something real” and head down to the stokehole, looks like something out of a 1930’s Hollywood musical.
Later, there are echoes of Fritz Lang, film noir, the video artist Mary Reid Kelley, King Kong and George Tooker’s midcentury magic realism. Is that Long hanging by a beam on one of the rafters in the corner? How did he get there?
It is not possible to look away, even for a moment.