The stalwart Irish American playwright Eugene O'Neill is well known by theater practitioners for his neurotic stage directions, which are meticulously detailed and famously ignored by contemporary directors of his plays. The New York Neo-Futurists, experimental darlings of the East Village, have seized upon this absurder side of O'Neill by again staging only his stage directions in their latest project,The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 2. In this second installment of the Complete & Condensed project, four actors from The Neo-Futurists enact the stage directions from five of O'Neill's lesser known plays: Recklessness (1913), Warnings (1913), Fog (1914), Abortion (1914), and The Sniper (1915). Unapologetic in its literalness, Complete & Condensed is a theatrical exercise that deftly illuminates the constructs and fallacies of theater and performance, though not without moments of long-windedness.
Known by New Yorkers for their long-running signature show, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (in which the actors attempt to present 30 plays in 60 minutes), The Neo-Futurists are a mainstay in New York City's downtown theater scene. The manifesto of Neo-Futurism promotes an anti-illusory brand of theater in which performers can only play themselves, generating dramatic material from their actual lived histories; furthermore, performers' actions must be honest and complete (no fake-sleeping, no prop weapons, and only real alcohol is drunk onstage). Though Complete & Condensed does not adhere strictly to these Neo-Futuristic performance criteria, it shares the same goal of calling attention to the presentational strategies used in traditional stagings of theatrical realism.
Like most Neo-Futurist productions, the ensemble of Complete & Condensed is majorly in-tune. Reading the stage directions from a lectern on the side of the stage, the solid and recognizable voice of Cecil Baldwin (of podcast "Welcome to Night Vale" fame) is a constant reminder of the tomes of language often rendered invisible by the staging and directorial process. The elasticity of Cara Francis' face is awe-inspring, as is the physical humor of Dylan Marron. At times, the actors' choices are obvious, while they are delightfully surprising at other moments. Like Volume One, the experience of watching staged stage directions is mercurial: at times hilarious, and at others a bit lackluster. When stripped of their dialogue, O'Neill's plays disengage viewers' focus from the play's plot and characters, and focus them instead on a present moment of interpretive action.
While Complete & Condensed certainly manages to blow the dust off of O'Neill's elaborate and largely ignored stage directions, it may leave you wondering: so what? Less than homage, but more than an acting exercise, the meta-theatrical construct of Complete & Condensed is not inexhaustible. Viewers who are returning for a second helping of Complete & Condensed after seeing Volume One should expect a very similar performance to the first volume. The production is recommended especially for viewers who have yet to experience Complete & Condensed.
The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 2 runs at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue at East 10th Street) through May 11. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25. For tickets, call OvationTix at 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.nynf.org.