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The Hairy Ape

The Irish Rep production of Eugene O'Neill's play about the American class system proves it still has an eye-popping fascination 84 years after its Broadway premiere. logo
Gregory Derelian in The Hairy Ape
(© Carol Rosegg)
There's nothing quite so quaint in theater as an avant-garde play from yesteryear. Take the Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Eugene O'Neill's 80-minute play, The Hairy Ape, about the destructive effects of the American class system. This revival -- maybe "resuscitation" is a better word -- from director Ciaran O'Reilly has a genuine eye-popping fascination, if not exactly the steaminess the play had way back in 1922.

The Hairy Ape is about the pointedly-named Yank (Gregory Derelian), a self-appointed master of his domain who wants desperately to belong to the world outside the stokehole. Constantly shutting his colleagues up so he can think, Yank gets plenty to think about when uppity Mildred Douglas (Kerry Bishe) comes down from the promenade deck on a slumming spree and swoons insultingly on spotting the hulking hunk. (Yes, King Kong owes something to O'Neill.) Obsessing over being categorized as a hairy ape, Yank decides to put things right via a landlubber's journey to Fifth Avenue, to the Manhattan headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World, and finally to the gorilla house at the Bronx Zoo, where his need to belong is satisfied -- but not necessarily for long.

O'Neill's high-tension play was written during the summer of 1921 when the playwright was just a few months shy of 33. At the time, he was shaking up the stage with his relentlessly naturalistic-yet-expressionistic series of plays inspired by the years he'd shipped out to sea and by the men with whom he'd sailed. He'd already won the 1920 Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon and was about to be Pulitzer-ed again for Anna Christie. But when The Hairy Ape opened, there was a very different sort of reaction. The New York Police Department called the piece "obscene, indecent and impure." Before the uproar subsided, O'Neill had to wire a statement to The World that went, "Such an idiotic attempt at suppression will bring only ridicule on the poor dolts who started it. Further than that I have nothing to say at present."

Watching O'Neill's outcry on behalf of the common man in 2006 is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The socialist undercurrents and the portrayal of the upper class are as far away as a headline on the front page of that long-defunct newspaper. The participating figures, including Yank's co-stokers and Mildred's snotty aunt (Delphi Harrington), are decidedly stuck in their time. And even though The Hairy Ape is a museum piece, O'Reilly treats the furious melodrama as if he were freshening a Museum of Natural History cyclorama.

Still, O'Reilly takes his cues from O'Neill's deliberate stage directions. When Yank repeatedly assumes the pose made famous by Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker," it's because that's O'Neill's request. When the Fifth Avenue habitues walk around with the stiff pomp of the Lipizzaner stallions, it's because O'Neill asks for "detached, mechanical unawareness."

Moreover, Yank and his co-workers fall into round-shouldered, circular marches as if they were bored gorillas in a cage. These bent-over postures are dictated in part by Eugene Lee's set, which features a hydraulic upper level used to emphasize O'Neill's class consciousness and frequently set at a height just low enough that the actors playing stokers are unable to stand tall. (A similar apparatus was employed when Henry Ford metaphorically crushed his assembly-line workers in Ragtime.) Since things rarely get this elaborate at the Irish Rep, the outfit's determination to make the production count is clear.

The same can be said of the very buff Derelian's pumped-up portrayal of the ever-thinking, ever-frustrated Yank. By now, the hairy ape may also be the hoary ape, but as the bigger-than-life Derelian hurls him up on stage, he makes O'Neill's eight-decade-old play come to life.

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