5/24/09. To the St James with Eugene O’Neill to see the final performance of Desire Under The Elms. O’Neill warns me that there will be too much of one and not enough of the other, and based on this era’s preference for set declaration over emotional declarations, I assume that I will be watching very little Desire under a forest of Elms. It turns out to be the other way around. The set is Early Director’s Statement. There are no trees anywhere, only rocks, and several boulders hanging from the flies by knotted lengths of anchor ropes. Even the house is hanging over everybody’s head, which is to blatant symbolism what fourth-stage cancer is to the common cold.
The play begins with two yokels shifting a cart of stones from off right to stage left, which makes no mining sense at all. Shouldn’t they be taking the rocks away and clearing the land? But no. That would be realistic. And realistic is not on the menu tonight. We are dining on symbolic. Today’s main course will be an interpretation, not a play. This is only slightly less painful than watching (a) a production of As You Like It where the royalty are all Nazis and the forest dwellers are resistance fighters; or (b) Rebecca Hall in anything. Oh well. At least it’s not set in a jail.
And then the actors start shouting at each other, and jail is exactly where I feel like I am. Especially since the play is performed without an intermission. We are four lines into the thing and everyone is screaming casual remarks like “Hello” and “How are you?” to let the audience know that this is a play about PASSION, GOD DAMN IT. It’s like listening to John Barrymore through a bullhorn. After two minutes of this, my ear drums cover their own ears and curl up into a fetal ball of pain and yell: “You try and figure out what they’re saying--we can’t!”
Poor Eugene is beside himself. He so rarely gets produced, and when he does, his plays are rarely done well. Ten minutes in, he’s halfway through a flask of whiskey and muttering about the Tony Awards.
O’NEILL: I’m Eugene Fucking O’Neill and my play didn’t even get a nomination. Not one. A play about Beethoven’s ghost got nominations, for Chrissakes. I could write a play about Beethoven’s ghost during a two-day bender. And if I did, Moises Kaufman would ask my actors what it was about, tape record their answers, and then write his own play—and it would STILL be twenty times better than the piece of crap he DID write.
It doesn’t take long for Gene to become titanically inebriated. Every time he exhales, fumes of whiskey curl out from our box seat like the animated tendrils of cartoon perfume, lifting up people in the orchestra by their noses and making them sigh with pleasure. It is the only sound of happiness for the first thirty minutes of the play. By that time, O’Neill’s muttering has grown to an audible grumble. “Why do they do this?” he says loud enough for Brian Dennehy to hear. “Why do these God damn actors all equate anger with shouting? Shouting is not anger. Shouting is a TECHNIQUE!” “Not the way I shout!” yells Dennehy. Which is what I think he said. Hat I actually heard was “NAA THAA AY EYE OW!”
O’NEILL: What? What did you say? I can’t understand a misbegotten thing you said!
DENNEHY: You’re drunk, O’Neill.
O'NEILL: And you were a better ACTOR when you were drunk.
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
CARLA GUGINO: Brian, please, it’s the author.
PABLO SCHREIBER: It is?
CARLA GUGINO: Oh, go take your shirt off.
PABLO SCHREIBER: You first.
DENNEHY: I don’t give a damn if it’s the author.
O’NEILL: Well OBVIOUSLY.
DENNEHY: Nobody tells ME he can’t understand a word I say.
DENNEHY: I said, nobody--
DENNEHY: I said, --
O’NEILL: ENUNCIATE, you feckless coffee-drinker.
DENNEHY: What do you know about enunciating, you long-winded Mick?
O’NEILL: What the hell are you even doing on this stage?
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
O’NEILL: You’re a dumb ex-cop who only did one good movie.
DENNEHY: And you’re a beat-me-over-the-head-with-the-obvious hack whose best play never got performed in his lifetime.
O’NEILL: Come up here and say that !
It's at this point that Dennehy picks up one of the stage stones and throws it at O'Neill's head. O'Neill ducks and throws his empty flask at Dennehy. The flask hits Dennehy in the chest at about the same time the stone bounces off the wall behind us and lands on an old woman who's been asleep since the play began. She jumps up with a yell and her flailing arms whack the head of a producer type in the row in front of her, rearranging his perfectly white toupee so that it looks like a jaunty sailor cap. He starts yelling, the old woman starts yelling, O'Neill and Dennehy continue yelling, and when somebody in the balcony yells for everybody to shut up, Dennehy tosses a stage rock at him, too, and that's when the afternoon turns into the Irish version of the end of Hair, with everyone storming the stage not to dance, but to fight.
This is when I leave. I've seen this happen enough times before to know that the riot police will be called in and arrest everybody, after which O'Neill will wave his Nobel Prize and offer to buy everybody drinks, after which they will all adjourn to The Bucket Of Blood and drain the place of cheap whiskey (unless Dennehy stays on the wagon, in which case he'll drain the place of cheap tonic water), after which O'Neill will tie the director and the actors to a row of chairs and perform the entire play himself (including stage directions), after which he'll untie them and buy them more drinks and they'll all sing Sondheim numbers until they pass out.
DARK LADY: Sondheim numbers?
ME: Oh yes. O'Neill loves them. He's even turned one of his plays into a Sondheim musical.
DARK LADY: You're joking. Which one?
ME: Long Day's Journey Into Night Music.