Eugene O’Neill’s Early Plays is a late-career experiment for the Wooster Group. They typically perform theatrical cold fusion on a classic text, bombarding it with bravura physicality and technological design to unleash the energy at the work’s core. When applied to O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones, the results were revelatory. This time around, most of the experimentation is with their own method.
The company’s 67-year-old leader Elizabeth LeCompte started workshopping O’Neill’s early seafaring tales, then handed the director’s reins to Richard Maxwell, a master of effective affectlessness. As opposed to the Wooster’s usual clutter, irony, and immense energy, he usually forgoes all but a modicum of design or even actor intentions and intonations. Though the two directors may come at a text from opposite directions, their productions share a rigorous control over every stage inch and every production moment to evoke an essence. This is certainly true of this first-time collaboration.
The set exhibits the common ground between the two aesthetics: it’s primarily LeCompte and Jim Clayburgh’s scenic design from the other Wooster productions of O’Neill minus the microphones and video screens. Stripped to its basics, it’s evocative and beautiful. A few rods and pulleys, some metal planks and fog are all that’s necessary to conjure a floating world.
The middle and best playlet, Bound East for Cardiff, cuts to the quick of O’Neill and the companies’ aesthetics. Featuring New York City Players’ Brian Mendes and the Wooster Group’s Ari Fliakos, the tale of a dying shipman and the mate who does his best to ferry him home is unsentimental and devastating. The prodigiously talented Fliakos has a resonant voice that almost seems actor-y when placed beside Mendes, who merely says his lines, simple and pure. An achingly tenuous connection is forged between two characters and two performance styles that nonetheless remain inherently separate.
Opener Moon Of the Caribbees seems a bad fit for Maxwell’s approach to dialogue. Aiming for authenticity, O’Neill wrote out the dialect for each member of the multi-national crew phonetically. Per usual, Maxwell has the actors speak in a monotone, without accents, and move, most often, with deliberation. He presumably wants to sink beneath the surface of the work’s blarney and boisterous energy, but there doesn’t seem to be much else there. No one from the New York City Players besides Mendes and another stalwart, Jim Fletcher, has much presence. So most of the actors have nothing to keep their heads above water. The writing, which is Maxwell’s focus, comes off as condescending.
Things go better in The Long Voyage Home, the final one-act. Taking place in a dockside bar just after landing, we watch as a bartender and prostitute fleece a young sailor, played by the sound designer Bobby McElver. His awkward, flat affect fits perfectly with the character’s innocence. Both seem exposed by Maxwell’s method and we lean forward hoping somehow everything will turn out fine.
On the whole, Early Plays is often rocked by crosscurrents. The magnificent focus and masterful irony of Wooster Group’s leading lady Kate Valk, for instance, don’t seem to jibe with the cut of Maxwell’s jib. She and Fliakos have too much going on in their minds to abstain wholly from interpreting the text. This doesn’t mean they and the production aren’t worth watching from start to finish. Smooth sailing’s for people who’d rather stay home. When O’Neill set out to sea, he was seeking adventure. Early Plays, even when the dual companies are dueling each other, supplies it by the boatload.
Early Plays ran February 21 through February 24 at Redcat, 631 West 2nd Street Los Angeles, CA 90012 (213) 237-2800.