The three O'Neill works presented are part of the playwright's "Glencairn" cycle, named after the steamship that is central to each play. The production opens with The Moon of the Caribees, which focuses on melancholy sailor Smitty (Kevin Hurley) who drinks to forget his lost love. Maxwell stages much of the piece in a static fashion, with actors rarely moving while speaking their lines. However, a shift occurs with the arrival of two women -- Bella (Kate Valk) and Pearl (Kaneza Schaal) -- and soon there is dancing and eventually a fight.
The highlight of the evening is the middle play, Bound East for Cardiff. Since the bulk of the action is set in a cramped cabin on the ship, the lack of movement of the two primary characters -- Yank (Brian Mendes), who is gravely injured, and his buddy Driscoll (Ari Fliakos) -- is quite appropriate. Moreover, the two actors share a good rapport, and bring the most depth to O'Neill's words.
In addition, this segment has the most striking design elements. A fog machine is used to good effect here, and the dim lighting (designed by Aron Deyon and Michael McGee) nicely establishes atmosphere. Bobby McElver's subtle sound design keeps a low-level hum of ship activities constantly in the background, but it never distracts from the conversations of the characters.
The final piece, The Long Voyage Home, is the most disappointing, in part due to the performances of Bobby McElver as naïve sailor Olson, and Schaal as prostitute Freda. However, it is not entirely their fault that their manner of speaking feels overly labored.
O'Neill incorporates various dialects in the language he writes out for his characters. But rather than try for authentic pronunciations, Maxwell and his cast approach the words phonetically. The result is strange and jarring, and some actors handle the rhythms of it better than others.
Fans of Maxwell and the New York City Players are likely to be the most appreciative of Early Plays, as it clearly invokes the kind of affectless performance that has been a hallmark of the director's work. Those hoping for a show that more closely resembles a typical Wooster Group performance are less likely to be satisfied with this production, as there is a surprising lack of technology and other multi-media components.
And as for admirers of Eugene O'Neill? Well, it's certainly true that the plays included here are rarely performed, and seeing them live is likely to be a treat. But be forewarned that the production takes a deconstructive approach to the playwright's use of language that can be both intriguing and off-putting.