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The Beat, Beat, Beat of the Tom-Tom: ‘The Emperor Jones’

March 14th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Obi Abili in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Obi Abili in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Irish Repertory Theatre has a rather liberal interpretation of its titular mission, which can be seen by its occasional production of plays by Irish Americans, like Eugene O’Neill, whose explosive 1920 play The Emperor Jones, is now receiving its second revival. (The first was in 2009 starring John Douglas Thompson and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, who staged this replication of his earlier production.)

O’Neill’s semi-expressionistic one-act was considered an artistic pathbreaker in its day. Partly this is because it was one of the first important plays by a white playwright centered on a black character (played by Charles Gilpin in the original and Paul Robeson in the 1933 movie), and partly because it broke away so radically from then conventional realism in favor of imaginative, nonrealistic, theatrical staging for its final scenes. Over the years, the play has had to overcome charges of racism, but, fortunately, it continues to receive notable productions.

Andy Murray in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Andy Murray in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Its present incarnation, running a swift 65 minutes, enjoys the commanding presence of British actor Obi Abili. This impressive-looking thespian fully embodies the boastful, crafty, ruthless, crap-shooting Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter and murderer who escaped from a U.S. prison to a West Indian island where he manipulated the locals to become their emperor. Forget about skin color and listen to some of his words for reflections on our current political leadership.

O’Neill, using a story he’d heard about an actual Haitian leader, attributes Jones’s sway to his exploitation of the natives’ superstitious fears by claiming only a silver bullet can kill him. Aiding him is a greedy, craven Cockney trader named Smithers (Andy Murray).

When his corrupt dictatorship, under which he makes the laws and embezzles the money, turns his victimized people against him, the haughty Jones flees through the jungle, with the money he’s stolen, toward a waiting boat. In a half dozen brief scenes, during which he’s the only speaker, the jungle comes alive in his increasingly fevered imagination with “the Little Formless Fears,” seen as terrifying spirits, frightening rituals, and chilling sounds (created by the top-notch Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab), including the heartbeat-like throbbing of drums. Jones’s past misdeeds and racial memories, such as a slave auction, burst into vivid life before he fires his silver bullet at a huge crocodile before he himself dies by such a bullet crafted by the natives.

Charlie Corcoran’s set of loose hangings, dominated at first by Jones’s raised throne, becomes, in the scenes of jungle madness, a kaleidoscopic playground for lighting designer Brian Nason’s nightmarish effects. Costume designers Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher contrive a variety of eerie costumes for the spirits, many of them seeming to be offshoots of the surrounding trees, while puppets and fearsome masks (the work of Bob Flanagan) further heighten the hair-raising atmosphere. Every move is excitingly choreographed by Barry McNabb, most memorably a dance featuring a colorful witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell).

Obi Abili in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Obi Abili in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Abili fills the stage with ample physical and vocal force although his words, written in heavy “Negro” dialect, are sometimes muffled. At one point he whips his throne platform with one muscular blow after another, such that you shudder at the thought of what the effect would be on a human back. The ensemble, including Carl Hendrick Louis as the native called Lem, are all up to the task.

I missed Thompson’s 2009 performance so I can’t compare him to Abili but, for now, Abili has set the high standard I’ll remember the next time someone tackles The Emperor Jones.

The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd Street, NYC
Through April 23

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

‘Hughie’: A Not-So-Long Day’s Journey Into Night

February 25th, 2016 Comments off

by Bobby McGuire

Logo ArtWatching Hughie, director Michael Grandage’s cleverly understated production of Eugene O’Neill’s late career one-act play, brought to mind a flight I took a few years ago. Ticketed in the dreaded middle seat on a sold-out plane, I had a rather large passenger passed out on the aisle seat to my left and an incessantly chattering passenger to my right at the window. The plane was stuck on the tarmac with the “fasten seat belt” sign on. Clearly I wasn’t going anywhere.

Such is the fate of Hughes (Frank Wood), the laconic new third-shift desk clerk of a seedy Midtown hotel described by O’Neill as “a third class dump catering to the catch-as-catch-can trade.” Stuck at his desk in the early hours of the morning, he encounters Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker) for the first time. Erie, a heavy-drinking small time gambler, is back from a five-day drinking bender aimed at drowning his sorrows over the death of his best friend, the former night clerk Hughie (Hughes’ predecessor).

“Best friend” might be a stretch here—as the play progresses, we learn that Hughie was most likely Erie’s only friend, and probably had the patience of Job. This is because Erie is at worst exhausting and at best depressing. In an attempt to make his life appear covetable, habitual drunkard Erie brags of his inflated gambling winnings and recounts tales of parading Follies girls (read prostitutes) past Hughie. If the play was written in the modern day, Erie would be the type of guy whose phone calls are destined to end up unanswered voicemails. If the role of best friend is open, the purposefully detached Hughes shows no interest in attending the casting call.

Frank Wood (l) and Forest Whitaker (r) in 'Hughie.' (Photo: Marc Brenner via The Broadway Blog.)

Frank Wood (l) and Forest Whitaker (r) in ‘Hughie.’ (Photo: Marc Brenner via The Broadway Blog.)

Making his Broadway debut, Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker appears to have taken a cue from playwright O’Neill who described the character as having a “sentimental softness” incongruous to the hard-boiled picture of a gambler. His Erie is desperate to be liked as he wears out his welcome quickly with Hughes. If Whitaker is guilty of anything on stage, it’s portraying Erie as perhaps too kind and affable. Lacking anything resembling a backbone, the audience is left to wonder how this man with neither wit, skill or luck, has managed to survive as long as he has. Still, whether his character is processing a difficult emotion, concocting his next tall tale, or fumbling though a pocket of I.O.U.’s, Whitaker is fascinating to watch.

Tony Award-winner (Side Man) Frank Wood’s performance as the disinterested Hughes begins 20 minutes before the curtain, as the audience is being seated. Staring blankly into space with no stage business, it’s clear that his character has already conceded defeat in life. As Whitaker takes the stage and goes on what is ostensibly a 50-minute monologue, Wood delivers a masterclass in the difficult art of active non-listening.

Frank Wood (l) and Forest Whitaker (r) in 'Hughie.' (Photo: Marc Brenner via The Broadway Blog.)

Frank Wood (l) and Forest Whitaker (r) in ‘Hughie.’ (Photo: Marc Brenner via The Broadway Blog.)

An indictment of the American dream, Hughie is laden with metaphors at almost every turn. Hughes in his dead end job is stuck in overnight purgatory with Erie, a gambler with nothing left to bet (we later learn he’s hiding from creditors looking to cash in on his sizable gambling debt). Neither appears to have options. Any thought of mobility is a pipe dream at best.

This is conveyed with a subtle hand by director Michael Grandage, who orchestrates the plotless piece as though something might happen in spite of the overall hopelessness of the situation and surroundings. To further drive the point home, the elevator in Christopher Oram’s appropriately derelict set is out of order and the stairs look like more effort than their worth. If the lobby is this depressing how awful must the rooms upstairs be?

As a playwright, O’Neill aged like few others and published his best work at the end of his career. Like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, Hughie deals with existential themes. However, unlike the aforementioned plays that take three to five hours to perform, Hughie says it all in 60 minutes. You may not night like the protagonist, but you won’t be stuck with him too long either.

Hughie
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
Through June 12

Bobby McGuire is a freelance editor and writer. Follow him on Instagram at @bobbbymcgnyc.

Review: “The Iceman Cometh” at BAM

February 14th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

The cast of "The Iceman Cometh" at BAM. (photo: Richard Termine)

The cast of “The Iceman Cometh” at BAM. (photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

There’s no question that Eugene O’Neill’s barroom drama about the hopelessness of hope, The Iceman Cometh, is a superlative contribution from one of America’s three top serious dramatists, worthy of respect as a modern classic. For me, it falls just shy of true greatness because of its inordinate length, something critics have carped about since its original Broadway production in 1946. Director Robert Falls’s widely lauded revival, brought intact from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre to BAM’s Harvey Theatre, runs four hours and forty-five minutes, nearly as long as it takes to fly from Los Angeles to New York. For all its superb dramatic qualities, its duration makes one conscious of its overly repetitive thematic points, its wordiness, and its excess of self-pitying characters.

Still, the full house when I attended remained riveted throughout, and, after four acts with three 15-minute intermissions, rose like Hokusai’s wave to splash the 18-member ensemble with loving applause and shouted admiration. Foremost of the recipients was Nathan Lane, normally so brilliant in comedic roles, demonstrating the remarkable acuity of his tragic chops in the role of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, the traveling salesman who, after a life-changing experience, abandons his optimistic pipe dreaming and seeks to smash those that sustain a barroom packed with self-deluded drunks. Brian Dennehy, who played Hickey in Fall’s 1990 Goodman Theatre production, now portrays, with glowering power, the play’s second lead, Larry Slade, once a fiery syndicalist-anarchist but now a wreck depending on pipe dreams to get him through the night.

(l to r) Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy and Salvatore Inzerillo in "The Iceman Cometh." (photo: Richard Termine)

(l to r) Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy and Salvatore Inzerillo in “The Iceman Cometh.” (photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The Iceman Cometh, loosely based on O’Neill’s own experiences, has been called an American The Lower Depths because of its incisive picture of the boozers, pimps, tarts (a term they prefer to “whores”), anarchists, gamblers, con men, war vets, and dreamers frequenting Harry Hope’s Bowery bar and flophouse. These bums do little more than drink and sleep at Harry’s, surviving on glorified memories and romantic illusions of one day being able to restore their broken lives.

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