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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the St. James


  Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy/Ph: Sara Krulwich

The name in lights over the St. James Theatre says it all:"Desire." The play is Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, currently being revived on Broadway directly from its run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. If you're looking at that sign and wondering where the elms are, don't look for them onstage either. All you'll see there in this hard-hitting production is a barren, Sisyphean landscape of giant boulders, some of which are suspended by ropes in midair behind a murky, translucent backdrop. A two-story house also hangs over the playing area like an immense Sword of Damocles, as two unhappy souls (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman) toil the land underneath like prisoners in a chain gang.

The two laborers are half-brothers to a younger man named Eben (Pablo Schreiber), who seizes some money he claims his late mother left him and gives it to his brothers, exhorting them to follow their dreams out West. With them out of the way, Eben can turn his attention to Ephraim, his hated father (Brian Dennehy), who stands between him and his claims to the land. In O'Neill's 1924 classic, people are either tethered to the land through desire or through imprisonment. Or, in Eben's case, both.

But desire takes a sharp turn into Oedipal territory when the father returns home with a beautiful new wife, Abbie (Carla Gugino). From the moment she and Eben exchange a silent, sizzling glare in the kitchen, you know it's going to be a bumpy ride. Enormously controversial in its day, O'Neill's play is now considered one of his classics, if not rising to the poetic heights of Long Day's Journey into Night or The Iceman Cometh. The dialogue in Desire is sometimes ham-fisted and bordering on self-parody. But director Robert Falls' revival efficiently cuts through those shortcomings-literally so, since the production runs just over 90 minutes and extraneous supporting characters have been excised.

Falls elicits strong performances from all three of his leads. When Schreiber and Gugino first confront each other in that kitchen scene, the electricity is so hot you can almost hear the hum of the power lines. Schreiber brings a dynamic sense of danger to every role he performs, whether it's the wounded son in the Tony-winning revival of Awake and Sing! or the raging misogynist in last year's original off-Broadway premiere of reasons to be pretty. Here his powerful connection to his character's yearnings goes a long way towards overcoming O'Neill's more purple passages.

Gugino, who was a bright spot in the otherwise dull 2004 Broadway revival of After the Fall, infuses Abbie with just the right balance of headstrong wife and passionate lover. Dennehy, too, turns in a fine performance. An actor whose work can range from the brilliantly subtle (his Tony-winning turn in Falls' Death of a Salesman) to the overly obvious (in the 2007 Inherit the Wind), here allows the different shades of Ephraim's character to shine through.

But the most thrilling element of this revival is the set designed by Goodman veteran Walt Spangler , who works seamlessly with Richard Woodbury's other-worldly sound design to create an unpredictable, Expressionistic terrain of tragic longing.





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