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Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

It’s a truism that Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is long and repetitious, so it comes as a surprise that Richard Eyre’s production plays so grippingly that it's never a slog. Eyre makes it clear that the Tyrones, the family at its center (based O’Neill’s own), are deeply dysfunctional, but each repetition at the BAM Harvey Theater rings true, and many of them prove comical. Each character knows the others’ strengths and frailties. Yet although they claw at one another often, there’s pulsing love in this family.

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King Lear

King Lear

In 1940 British critic James Agate said of John Gielgud’s King Lear: “I do not feel that this Lear’s rages go beyond extreme petulance—they do not frighten me!” No such reservation afflicts Gregory Doran’s intelligent and well-spoken Royal Shakespeare Company production, which stars Antony Sher as the king—the Shakespearean role that Sher, who last year played Falstaff at BAM, says will be his last.

 

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An Ideal Betrayal

As Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s 2012 revision of his play The Judas Kiss, Rupert Everett has found the role of his career. Though he’ll always be more famous for films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding, his terrific performance in the production visiting BAM helps resurrect a play by the prolific author of Plenty and Skylight that had less impact in its Broadway debut in 1998. 

Neil Armfield's staging has given Hare’s play the heft of real tragedy. The Judas Kiss is set at two pivotal points in Wilde’s life: the first act takes place the day he is arrested at the Cadogan Hotel for gross indecency, following the collapse of his 1895 libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie. The second takes place two years later, after Wilde has left prison and has settled with Bosie in Naples, living hand-to-mouth.

In both halves Wilde is seen to undermine his own best interests, all for the love of Bosie, played by Charlie Rowe as an arrogant, narcissistic worm in a light blue suit. (Costume designer Sue Blane clearly knows her stuff; it’s a color long associated with homosexuals.) The first act revolves around Wilde’s refusal to leave England, even as his old friend and ex-lover Robbie Ross (Cal MacAninch) urges him to. Yet Wilde foolishly won’t take the carriage that awaits to spirit him to the Continent.

Instead, Wilde tries his best to be unflappable, tossing off witticisms and demanding a meal of lobster before the police arrive to arrest him. Everett handles the timing and the wit with ease, and he’s physically right as well: tall, and in a fat suit, a bit stout, just like Wilde. He claims to foresee what is going to happen, yet, he says, “I have always had a low opinion of what is called action.” It's a witticism that contradicts his reckless decision to sue Queensberry for libel after being called a “sodomite.” Nonetheless, Everett inhabits the contradictions, the wit, the passion and the foolishness, in a multifaceted, riveting performance.

He’s equally as good in Act II, sitting almost the whole time in a straw hat and lap blanket on a chair in Naples. He and Bosie are in a lowdown hotel, and Bosie is picking up tricks. Tom Colley as an Italian fisherman is one of them; he spends most of his considerable stage time demonstrating that he has no body fat whatsoever. The frank nudity contrasts neatly with the scene that opens the play, when Alister Cameron’s dryly indulgent concierge Moffatt discovers his staffers, Arthur and Phoebe (Elliot Balchin and Jessie Hills), having sex in the darkened room taken by the Wilde entourage. Before Arthur leaves, Moffatt says they must have a talk about the situation later. Twisting a towel around his hand and snapping it ever so slightly, as if it were a riding crop, he warns, “I shall need to reprimand you in person.” His sexual impulses are glimpsed for only a moment, but it’s typical of Armfield’s detail. The contrast between the unruffled acceptance of heterosexuality vs. the disdain for homosexuality, as well as English repression vs. the later Italian vigor, enriches the story.

Hare is one of Britain’s most political playwrights, so barbs aimed at the class system are inevitable. Bosie is an aristocrat who naturally abuses the staff and loudly opposes Robbie’s common sense by insisting his highly placed acquaintances in the House of Lords will pull strings for Wilde. They don’t.

Moreover, Wilde and Bosie are only two sides of a love triangle. MacAninch invests the dapper, punctilious Robbie with an almost palpable unrequited affection for Wilde. His yearning makes their parting the most moving moment in the play. And Wilde behaves cruelly to Robbie, yet Robbie takes it with only the subtlest objection. 

Wilde is not, however, so blind that he cannot see Bosie’s callowness. When the arrogant youth declares, “I am already the greatest non-narrative poet in English,” Wilde flashes a scowl that’s priceless. Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch for Hare to cast Wilde as a Christ figure, but it’s not hammered at heavily. The kiss of the title quickly follows, as Bosie has been bought out by an allowance from his parents and has packed his bags. The last glimpse of Everett’s Wilde, throwing his head back and laughing uncontrollably, hints at a classic architecture. He has given up everything for a young man who didn’t really love him; and he has sent away the man who did. The first act is tragedy; the second is farce.

David Hare’s The Judas Kiss plays through June 12 at BAM Harvey Theater (30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix St. in Brooklyn). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $30. Visit www.bam.org/theater for information. 

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Delusions Unto Death

After seeing the Goodman Theatre revival of The Iceman Cometh in Brooklyn, it’s tempting to wonder what Eugene O’Neill would have thought of purveyors of the modern 90-minute intermissionless play. Sloth-ridden pikers, perhaps? O’Neill’s late masterpiece runs four hours and 45 minutes at BAM, and it is surely one of the bleakest plays ever written. Don’t let that put you off, however. Robert Falls’s magnificent production may require a marathon sitting, but it’s worth it. 

The setting is 1912, in a combination saloon and rooming house filled with those who have hit rock bottom. The proprietor is Stephen Ouimette’s cantankerous Harry Hope (O’Neill’s sense of irony is not subtle), and the denizens are a collection of drunks, waking up gradually in the gloom. At first Natasha Katz’s remarkable lighting barely registers; then it slowly reveals the tables of inebriates. 

The group is awaiting Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Nathan Lane), whose annual arrival for Harry’s birthday party is imminent. Among those on hand are ex-anarchist Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy); Hugo, a Russian-accented anarchist (Lee Wilkof); Ed Mosher (Larry Heumann Jr.), who is Harry’s brother-in-law and worked for the circus; and Joe Mott (John Douglas Thompson), an ex-gambler on the skids who cleans the bar. Other characters include two Boer War veterans from opposing sides and a correspondent in that war; two bartenders; and a trio of self-styled “tarts.”

During the next 48 hours the last vestiges of hope for any of them are stripped away. Before Hickey’s arrival the burnt-out Larry is approached by Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews), a young man whose mother is a firebrand anarchist more devoted to the movement than to him; Don has always looked up to Larry as a father, but now Larry wants Don to take a powder. Someone has sold out the movement, and Don’s mother has been arrested.

When Hickey shows up, he delivers a shock to the group. He’s no longer a drinker. He has faced himself and he has become an evangelist for truth-telling. The Hickey part doesn’t seem tailored to Nathan Lane’s acknowledged comic brilliance, but Lane not only finds comedy where it isn’t apparent, he proves himself a powerful dramatic actor (to be fair, he has done dramatic parts before, but nothing compared to this). The evangelist’s fire and the do-gooder’s brass, the glad-hander’s cheer and optimism—Lane has them all. He jokes around as a salesman must, and yet he also excoriates the others’ “pipe dreams.” You’ll be sick of that phrase by the end of the evening, with “take a hop off the fire escape” a close second—O’Neill overwrites, but he also supplies plenty of humor, and even the repetition, while trying one’s patience, gathers a cumulative, relentless force.

Over the course of the day, Hickey cajoles and browbeats several of the residents to leave the bar and face their demons. “Jimmy Tomorrow” (a fretful, nervous James Cameron), the former Boer correspondent, dresses up in a suit and is forced out to a job interview he has rattled on about. The Boer combatants (John Judd and John Reeger) rival each other to see who will have the gumption to leave and whose courage will falter. Even Harry is propelled onto the street, where he claims a car nearly ran him down. Ouimette, hollow-eyed and haunted, is a portrait of a dead man walking.
 
Brian Dennehy, who also played Hickey for Falls back in 1990, is a formidable presence as Slade, who’s waiting for death. Although the character is meant to be exhausted, Dennehy is occasionally vocally underpowered in conveying that. In fact, the opening scene only jumps into gear when Thompson, whose O’Neill credits include a terrific Emperor Jones, kick-starts the energy. As Mott, the only black man, he dreams of opening “a gambling house for colored men” and exhibits more fiery optimism than some of the others.
 
In the end, however, O’Neill makes clear that the lies these people tell themselves are the only thing keeping them alive. They have only their delusions and alcohol. Even the “tarts” tell themselves they’re not prostitutes (the distinction is lost in the mists of time), but they clearly are.
 
O’Neill’s play is not done often—it has 19 characters, for one thing. But it’s not as daunting as you might expect. If you can get a ticket, summon your stamina and don’t miss it. 
 
BAM presents the Goodman Theatre production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh through March 15. Performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling BAM ticket services at (718) 6436-4100 or visiting BAM.org. The BAM Harvey Theater is at 651 Fulton St. in Brooklyn.

 

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Nora Today

When staging plays from the theatrical canon, contemporary directors are confronted with the question: why should audiences care now? While Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is undeniably a classic, its relevance always demands redefinition. Although Ibsen claimed the play was humanist rather than feminist in its politics, his protagonist Nora has been touted as a theatrical harbinger of feminism; theater critics have long been denoting the parallels between Nora’s struggles as a wife and mother and those of contemporary women. In the Young Vic’s latest production of Simon Stephens's adaptation of the play, however, A Doll’s House takes on a fresh relevance for audiences at the BAM Harvey Theater. Director Carrie Cracknell resists taking any particular stance on capitalism, gender roles, marriage, or other institutions – but instead focuses on hitting and maintaining a shrill note of anxiety produced by such oppressive institutions. In an economical and political climate that seems more precarious than ever, this mood of institutionalized anxiety is certainly something most of us can relate to right now.

In an endeavor to mimic reality, a traditional box set for a 19th Century piece of realism consisted largely of a drawing room (or kitchen, as in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie), with doors leading to other rooms in the house or to the outside. While intricately decorated, this one-room design emphasized the claustrophobia felt by the characters, who are often entrapped within the oppressive structures of society. For the Young Vic's production, Ian MacNeil’s rotating set defies traditional realism’s claustrophobic designs in favor of a cinematic view of Nora and Torvald’s middle class flat. To watch the characters move inside this dizzying and fascinating carousel is a true marvel to behold. It gives the audience an unfolding panoramic view into the daily lives and private moments of the characters, allowing us to see Nora’s face when she drops the façade – a privilege not afforded by box sets.

Though MacNeil’s set offers a cinematic peek into the characters’ personal spaces, the acting is not cinematic at all. While Hattie Morahan’s bravura performance as Nora certainly stood out as breathtakingly original and honest, Cracknell clearly encouraged the entire cast to be unafraid of bold choices. When eliciting money or favors from Torvald (played compellingly by Dominic Rowan), Morahan’s Nora became as cute, shivery, and saucer-eyed as a baby Disney animal. In a room by herself, however, and left alone to her own inner demons, we can watch Morahan melt into an inner world of anxiety and tension that we begin to understand belies her cuteness.

Audiences of A Doll’s House have come to expect the play’s final note: Ibsen’s famous slamming door. As Nora leaves her home, her family, and the only world she’s ever known, we hear her slam the door behind her. In the Young Vic’s production, Nora does slam her door, but it makes more of a clatter or click than a slam. While possibly disappointing for those of us who want a nice loud slam!, the more subtle departing sound of Morahan’s Nora concludes the production on an ambiguous note. A loud door slam might suggest that Nora is liberated and on to bigger and better things, but Cracknell does not give us this satisfaction. Indeed, Nora steps forward with the same anxiety-ridden-confidence that a college graduate steps forward into today’s precarious job market. It is this raw, situational anxiety that makes Cracknell's production a timely rendition for today.

A Doll's House is playing at the BAM Harvey Theatre (651 Fulton St. in Brooklyn) and has been extended to run through March 23. Performances are Sunday at 3 p.m., Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 718-636-4100 or by visiting bam.org.

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