The Hairy Ape
Bobby Cannavale stars in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1922 drama
We promenade across the stage in the opening moments of The Hairy Ape, Eugene O'Neill's drama about the humiliation of the workingman, now receiving a muscular revival at the Park Avenue Armory. In full view of the audience, we're forced to see and be seen in this former headquarters for the 7th New York Militia or the "silk stocking regiment" (so called for its high concentration of soldiers from the city's moneyed elite). We in the audience eagerly play our part, waving hello and hobnobbing as we ascend the stairs to our seats in the drill hall. Sure, O'Neill never wrote this exact stage direction, but director Richard Jones gets to the essence of the playwright's intention by giving this expressionist work a staging that is both clear and confrontational.
O'Neill is perhaps best known for his later work: meandering, melancholic dramas like The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night (emphasis on the long). At 90 minutes, The Hairy Ape feels positively brisk by comparison. O'Neill wrote the play in 1922, a time when he was experimenting with new German techniques that involved simplifying characters and events in order to reveal a deeper truth (O'Neill's other great expressionist drama, The Emperor Jones, is now enjoying a revival at Irish Repertory Theatre). While O'Neill's style evolved over the years, one theme remains consistent in his work: a direct challenge to the undergirding rags-to-riches mythology of our country, the "American Dream" that encases capitalism in a protective barrier of aspiration.
In eight scenes, The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank (Bobby Cannavale), a not-too-bright stoker on a transatlantic ocean liner. He's generally pleased with his life of shoveling coal and swilling whiskey, telling fellow stoker Long (Chris Bannow) to "sit down before I knock yuh down," when Long begins agitating against the rich folks in first class. But a humiliating confrontation with one of those passengers, Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs), sparks a burning resentment in Yank's belly that he just can't quench, leading him down a path of self-destructive rage.
Combs is positively sinister as Mildred, a woman who is not just rich, but the daughter of a steel magnate. As Sarah Angliss' cinematic underscore swells, Mildred runs onstage holding a sheer scarf above her head like Isadora Duncan. "Please do not mock at my attempts to discover how the other half lives," she dramatically commands her Aunt (a mocking Becky Ann Baker). She's the misunderstood ingenue in her own movie, off to Europe to observe the poor up close during her grand tour (an old-fashioned way of saying "semester abroad"). Combs brilliantly plays against her small stature and pristine white dress, portraying Mildred like a Shirley Temple doll possessed by Beelzebub.
Not that she has much stomach for hell: Upon seeing Yank and his crewmates stoke the furnaces in the bowels of the ship, she promptly faints. The officer who rescues her brings her up the stairs into the audience, making it clear: She belongs with us.
Jones (who helmed a similar production at London's Old Vic in 2015) directs this proletarian fable with an appropriately heavy hand, bringing the churning gears of industry into the space through Stewart Laing's conveyor belt set: Scenery glides in from behind the bleachers, providing for speedy, active transitions. Laing chooses no more than two essential colors for each scene (for a passage in a socialist meeting house, it's red and white), creating a simple, dreamlike quality throughout. Mimi Jordan Sherin's dramatic lighting enhances this semi-lucid state as it casts haunting shadows on the back wall of the armory while the actors and set pieces rotate on and off.
Jones fully employs the immensity of the Armory: We feel like we are being shut into a ship's hull when the ushers close the massive double doors through which we entered (incidentally, Jones directed Titanic on Broadway). Actors crawl along the catwalk on the back wall and crisscross the floor, which spans an entire city block, bringing a stretch of Fifth Avenue into the theater. A mid-show parade of skeletal aristocrats seemingly drawn from the imagination of Edward Gorey brings our earlier promenade into sharp focus. They wear yellow gloves and yellow shoes to match our yellow chairs and show programs. "Yellow" is a word of contempt for Yank and Cannavale spits it out like a piece of rancid meat every time he says it.
In this nightmarish realm, Cannavale is the only actor who seems convincingly human: O'Neill's salty prose feels at home in his mouth, while Yank's sweaty, aggressive masculinity radiates from his body. Lost in a sea of angry stick figures, we cling to his fleshy performance out of sheer recognition of our shared humanity. As played by Cannavale, Yank is by no means a lovable character, but he is an undeniably sympathetic one.
We also feel implicated in his downfall thanks to Jones, who pulls no punches in this gorgeous and forceful revival, which asks the question: Just how much humiliation does it take to turn a begrudging acceptance of American inequality into a desire to blow the whole thing up? This revival could not have arrived at a better moment.