Saturday, May 23, 2009

What B'way doesn't Desire

Partly because I'm planning my wedding & covering the awards season for Metromix, I've been lazy about blogging. Which is too bad: I've seen some great shows. Generally I'm bored by plays about suburbia, but Next to Normal hit me hard. I'm a sucker for stories about mental illness, & this one didn't compromise with a happy ending (unlike Distracted, whose flip finale undermined a funny look at ADHD). Normal also left Lady Hotspur in tears, & she's not easily moved.

But I especially want to take note of Desire Under the Elms, which closes this weekend. I'm not surprised at this news (Lady H. called it “the worst play I've ever seen on Broadway”), but I am disappointed. It's not arid or anodyne like most legit drama. Director Robert Falls has cut away about half of Eugene O'Neill's script & replaced it with bold theatrical gestures. It stumbles and it misfires, but it's not boring.

This show fits on a Broadway stage, which I can't say about most modern drama. A good show is conceived to a specific type of space, & O'Neill belongs on a huge stage like the St. James. Desire is bold melodrama: its personalities are fervent and its emotions are grandiose. Desire gets a lot of its energy from an Oedipal triangle, with a Yankee kid stealing the farm and third wife from his father. That young wife is a gorgon of sexual desire (thus the title--O'Neill, like Strindberg, finds women horrifying).

Desire is bizarre, which Falls accepts. That's why I like the show, and probably why it couldn't find an audience. Falls replaces O'Neill's elaborate & over-explicit dialogue with expressionistic dialogue-free scenes backed by raggedy Bob Dylan. Stars Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino, accustomed to realistic emotional arcs, look skittish or dumbstruck. Yeah, Falls should've coached them better, but they just don't have the acting skill set. And a Broadway crowd has the same problem: they don't know how to interpret such a strange, unconventional show.

O'Neill's lurid tale of adultery and infanticide sounds like he based it on a 19th-century newspaper clipping. It's from the era when rural folks visited the circus tent on Saturday and the revival tent Sunday, and the railroad line led straight to damnation. Robert Falls' Desire is set in that folktale America, a long ways from the clean crossroads of Times Square. I can't imagine a Broadway where this show could be a blockbuster, but it's a more interesting one than ours.

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