Off Broadway Theater Review: THE COMPLETE & CONDENSED STAGE DIRECTIONS OF EUGENE O’NEILL, VOLUME ONE: EARLY PLAYS/LOST PLAYS (The New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theater)

by Thomas Antoinne on September 12, 2011

in Theater-New York

Post image for Off Broadway Theater Review: THE COMPLETE & CONDENSED STAGE DIRECTIONS OF EUGENE O’NEILL, VOLUME ONE: EARLY PLAYS/LOST PLAYS  (The New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theater)

THE WEIGHT OF HIS ELOQUENCE

Theatrical gimmicks are often a lot of fun.  The 39 Steps delivered them with panache, and Story Theater taught us never to underestimate the range of the audience’s imagination.  Currently, The New York Neo-Futurists are serving up a new theatrical gimmick in their production of The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays, now playing at the Kraine Theater, to less than satisfying results.

Off Broadway Theater Review - The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays - The New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theater - review of Thomas AntoinneToday’s playwrights are encouraged not to micromanage acting, directing, or design elements in their stage directions.  But like many of the great 20th century playwrights, Eugene O’Neill wrote extensive annotated stage directions…more to protect the specificity and integrity of the work.  Fortunately, O’Neill was a poet, so the stage directions are written with great swagger and flourish.  Yet they were also written almost 100 years ago, something we now considered a dated form of dramaturgy.  The New York Neo-Futurists are hoping you’ll find that amusing enough for a full evening of theatre.  Knowing the limitations (and the silliness) of the task at hand, the New York Neo-Futurists, helmed by Christopher Loar, are performing the stage directions of seven early plays by Eugene O’Neill. That’s right, just the stage directions – any dialogue is either suggested, gibberished, or improvised.  A single reader sits downstage left and reads the directions while six enthusiastic performers act them out.  The result feels more like the final presentation of a workshop exercise than a fully realized evening of theater.

Off Broadway Theater Review - The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays - The New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theater - review of Thomas AntoinneEugene O’Neill was the hip, downtown risk-taker of his day.  How apt that the New York Neo-Futurists should embrace his words.  And you can’t fault them for wanting to stage a direction like “get ready to crush her with the weight of his eloquence.”  The New York Neo-Futurists are eager to entertain, but a little too eager.  Most of the “plays” are performed with a sense of irony, determined to get any and all laughs possible. By the time the narrator announces, “Her eyes danced,” we have been primed to look for the actress to make some crazy eyes.  And she delivers.  While deconstructionists and theatre historians may relish shedding light on an obscure aspect of these obscure plays, the argument for the relevance of performing these stage directions as a comedy is never clearly made.  Even without such expectations, the production only occasionally hits its mark.

Off Broadway Theater Review - The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays - The New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theater - review of Thomas AntoinneThe good news is that the cast is very funny and fully committed.  Connor Kalista (a dead ringer for Eugene O’Neill), Jacquelyn Landgraf, Erica Livingston, Lauren Sharpe, Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, and Cara Francis take us through the seven plays with great range, gusto, and comic timing.  Donning appropriate (un-credited) costumes, the actors all look like they could be in just about any O’Neill play from the early period.  Some of the bits are very clever, including a cross-eyed servant, a trio of sharks, and a crocodile puppet substituting for a tearful baby.  O’Neill, however, was exploring naturalism in most of these plays, so the question keeps coming up:  how does mounting a sendup of O’Neill’s stage directions inform our times, or even O’Neill’s?

And then they perform the penultimate piece, “Before Breakfast.”  At long last, Christopher Loar and company get away from their eager-to-please cuteness and deliver the most pleasing and organically O’Neill-esque section of them all.  The ensemble morphs into two characters before our eyes and offers grace and theatricality that rivals the best of Anne Bogart and Julie Taymor.  For a few minutes, the show transcends the gimmicks and the limited quality of early O’Neill playwriting.  Instead of a second-rate fringe show, we are given a first-rate, re-imagined Greek chorus performing naturalistic heartbreak.  You can feel the audience lean in and listen differently, finally taking in the poetry of the stage directions matched with equally beautiful movement, honoring and respecting the leading playwright of the 20th century.  For those five exquisite minutes, we are in very good hands, experiencing a transformative theatrical moment.

Off Broadway Theater Review - The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays - The New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theater - review of Thomas AntoinneAnd then the seventh and final section begins and the old gimmick is back.  There is a meta-theatrical moment of note in this last piece involving three minutes of silence in darkness.  It is three full minutes, filled with nervous energy, a theatrical awareness of real time, and a personal existential moment for the audience.  (Several audience members felt obliged to check their smart phones; perhaps not quite trusting the integrity of the performers on giving them their full three minutes of silence?)

The misfortune of surrounding “Before Breakfast” with lesser work is that we are reminded of what the evening might have been but wasn’t.  If the New York Neo-Futurists want to continue performing work like The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays, perhaps it would be a wise move to eschew the easy laughs for Volume Two.

ta @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Anton Nickel

The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions Of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays
scheduled to end on October 1
for tickets, visit http://www.nyneofuturists.org/site/

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