Off-Broadway theater is known for pushing boundaries and bending genres but not every experiment deserves its moment in the spotlight, and even less maybe when it’s been done before. The New York Neo-Futurists had a hit in 2011 with The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1, but their return to the task of performing O’Neill’s early one-acts, sans dialogue, in Volume 2, has little to recommend it. In between narrator Cecil Baldwin’s smooth tones and the show’s finally serious closing tableau, this parade of physical gags proves to be a sophomoric prank of slight substance.
It helps therefore to remember that the aim of this offshoot of Chicago’s original Neo-Futurists is to reject the Stanislavskian approach to acting as “experiencing the role” or, more plainly, pretending to be a character. Certainly, the four-member cast (which is mostly new since Volume 1, with the exception of Cara Francis) doesn’t “pretend” to be the idealistic, ambitious, desperate or enraged individuals imagined by O’Neill in the five plays – “Recklessness,” “Warnings,” “Fog,” “Abortion” and “The Sniper” – comprising Volume 2.
What they do, however, is give a deliberately exaggerated, slapstick idea of those qualities. For example, if a character is described as “pale,” the actor brushes white powder liberally on his face. If he is then “flushed”, a thick coat of rouge is hastily applied. “Stoop shouldered?“ The actor hunches over like an octogenarian. “Elated?” He jumps wildly up and down. “Voluptuous?” Buttons fly off and cleavage is amply exposed. And if O’Neill specifies – as he does on more than one occasion – that a character “avoids [another’s] gaze,” that direction is the impetus for several full minutes of writhing, twisting and chasing about on stage to fulfill the playwright’s wish at its most literal.
These kinds of antics were crowd pleasers in Volume 1 and, if audience laughter is a reliable indicator, are once again. That’s all well and good but as an experiment in what Denis Diderot termed the “paradox of the actor,” it’s nothing new. Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players have been exploring the same principle for about as long as the Neo-Futurists, with very different methods from those on display in the Stage Directions. Moreover, as the Neo Futurists’ roots in European surrealism might suggest, it’s a field already well trodden on the Old Continent, and brilliantly so by companies like the Belgian collective Tg STAN (seen at this year’s Under the Radar festival), not to mention Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. In comparison, the Neo-Futurists’ antic aping looks – intentionally but unedifyingly – like a really bad high school drama club.
Assuming, however, that the company has more on their minds than general hilarity (and from their measured treatment of “The Sniper,” they appear to), what, if anything, is the takeaway about the founder of modern American theater and its only Nobel laureate?.
First of all, part of what makes these one-acts so easy to exploit for comedy is that these short plays, written between 1913 and 1915, are mere sketches of the tragic pessimism of O’Neill’s great, late works like The Iceman Cometh or Long Day’s Journey into Night. Characters “groan in impotent rage,” “shudder [with] disgust,” and “gush with enthusiasm.” They are “Poets” “All American Tackles” and cuckolded husbands whose lips are “perpetually curled in a smile of cynical scorn.” In short, they are broadly drawn caricatures, abiding in meticulously arranged settings, from a college dorm “its windows piled high with cushions” to a lifeboat engulfed in “a menacing silence” and a “thick screen of fog.” Hardly anything is left to chance.
The stories, too, go for the jugular. There are murders, suicides, shipwrecks, wars, love affairs, starving children, dead babies and grief-stricken parents. O’Neill wasn’t a particularly happy member of the human race, even in his early years, and his plays were not written to bathe any wounds. The Neo-Futurists’ choice to concentrate on only the stage directions of these works – in particular, the mountains of cushions, chairs, books and magazines with which O’Neill’s settings are laden (evoked by Cara Francis’ bric-a-brac set) – achieves a certainly welcome ironic distancing from so much suffering.
But other than the realization that O’Neill was a glutton for punishment, even in the Realist genre, there isn’t much else to be gained from the Neo-Futurists’ treatment of his oeuvre, even when such evident relish is brought to the task. One thing O’Neill didn’t imagine for his sets is provided here: three chalk outlines on the floor foreshadow where the play’s antiheroes will fall, under a portrait of the playwright himself. For O’Neill, so also for the Neo-Futurists, it seems: the harder they come, they harder they fall.