If there was something remotely profound about this current revival of Eugene O'Neil's Desire Under the Elms, it was completely lost on this audience member. After an intermissionless bombardment of non-stop yelling and soulless emoting, there was little more to say other than thank God, it's finally over.
As the curtain slowly rises on a set that looks like a Martian landscape, one will immediately be struck by the disquieting thought that one must have somehow wandered into the wrong theater. But, no, it's the St. James Theatre all right, and unless you act quickly you're about to lose two hours of your life that you'll never get back.
Leading the guilty party is director Robert Falls. Staging his actors to speak a majority of their dialogue facing the audience rather than looking at one another successfully creates a lack of connection between the characters. Furthering this alienation is a motley collage of uneven accents, making the words feel otherworldly instead of representative of human experiences. Falls pulls from a grab bag of random devices, searching desperately for ways to enhance the story, but comes up with nothing that works. A lame montage of daily life on the farm, oddly backed by the music of Bob Dylan, can find no other excuse for being aside from providing the muscled Pablo Schreiber a chance to take his clothes off, which may be good for selling tickets but does nothing for the play. Falls seemingly tries to be heavy and intellectual in some vague manner, but ultimately succeeds only in being a bit thick. This motif of pseudo-intellectualism is strongly supported by Walter Spangler's rock garden of a scenic design. Exploring variations on the color grey, Spangler's set is a grand collection of hanging boulders and would be worthy of some praise if it had been designed for a more appropriate piece. Neither the direction nor the design has any connection with this play.
In keeping with the prevailing sense of estrangement, no actor on the stage was able to get a tangible grasp on his or her character. Brian Dennehy grumbles and winces through his time on the boards -- if anyone understands half of what he says, please write me and let me know. Dennehy's Ephraim is thoroughly dull and could be simply described as a cantankerous old man, hardly making for exciting theatre. Pablo Schreiber (Eben) yells with a British accent and gets naked. Carla Gugino (Abbie) quivers with an accent faintly reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn (just her accent, not her talent). The rest of the cast wanders lost in the dialogue searching for a reason to be on stage.
This is the kind of vainly cerebral production that takes comfort in the notion of having gone over the heads of its audience. If first-time theatergoers were so unfortunate as to stumble on this revival for their introduction to the world of the stage, they would most likely never enter a theater again. - C. Jefferson Thom
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.