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More Stately Mansions
By Elyse Sommer
More Stately Mansions is a continuation of A Touch of the Poet in which a sick idealist, Simon Hartford, is nursed back to health by Sara Melody the daughter of a poor and pretentious Irish immigrant. He proposes marriage and a major family rift ensues.
Mansions picks up four years later, with Sara (Jenny Bacon) and Simon (Tim Hopper) married. The now less idealistic Simon is the pawn in the battle between Sarah and his mother Deborah (Joan MacInosh) to control him through love. It is a battle for possession of the two sides of Simon's nature (the materialistic and idealistic), played out against the larger canvas of corrupting influence of the industrial revolution on families whose Ids are still safely tucked in the pre-Freudian attics of their minds. In the course of this struggle Deborah loses touch with reality, Simon regresses to childhood and Sara is left in control.
To paraphrase a famous Voltaire axiom, this symbol-laden oedipal struggle takes place in a world that is not the best of all possible worlds. Since More Stately Mansions, unlike A Touch of the Poet, was an unfinished draft that O'Neill did not want posthumously finished or produced it is also not the best possible play to bring back memories of O'Neill's contribution to the theater, or to serve as an introduction to his work.
On the other hand . . .
The fact is that this unfinished play did accidentally escape being shredded along with the other unfinished segments in the 9-play A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed cycle. It's a case of the old saw that says you can't close the barn door after the cow has gotten out. For good or bad, O'Neill's draft did survive and, right or wrong, O'Neill's widow did authorize Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater to turn that draft into an acting version.
What's more, since the only American production failed despite a stellar cast, there seems little reason to bring back a "typical" psycho-realist revival. Thus it makes sense to give theater goers a chance to see the much acclaimed deconstructionist version directed by Ivo von Hove, Wunderkind of Dutch cutting edge theater. The always adventurous New York Theatre Workshop with its hip, open-minded young membership is the perfect place to see if what soared in Holland will gather altitude in New York. Whether or not you like the show based on the Gierow adaptation -- and a show is what von Hove dishes up - - it at least provides an opportunity to consider whether the play's accidental survival was a blessing in disguise or a disservice to O'Neill's memory. Falling into the category of O'Neill fan, I was disappointed that I was out of town during the first nights open to reviewers and rushed to see this rare and controversial production as soon as I got back.
As the play's plot swivels around the question of whether the wife or the mother will gain the upper hand in the oedipal struggle for control of the mansion of the heart and soul of the man they love, it also leaves you wondering whether van Hove's interpretation of O'Neill's story is synergetic or a completely rebuilt mansion that bears his stamp more than the playwright's.
According to a recent interview van Hove doesn't think this should matter since like other European colleagues he views a theatrical text as "the fuel that drives the car." However, while O'Neill's story and themes (also expressed in more finished and superior plays) are all there, van Hove has taken complete charge of the way the characters move and speak and physically interact. It's still O'Neill's story but it's van Hove's Mansion -- completely torn apart and rebuilt as a piece of abstract modern architecture. The playwright's text is indeed merely the fuel for the director's vision.
In many ways it could work since O'Neill's drama with its Greek tragedy elements of a mother gone mad and a son having to revert to the infant state in order to cut the oedipal strings lends itself to this sort of dance macabre surrealism. In some scenes it almost does.
I liked the way the actors walk slowly on stage Greek chorus-like at the beginning of each act. I also liked their taking a bow at the end of each act, as the performers do in an opera.
I could live with the battle-like minimalist set-- four strategically placed metal poles and a fewchairs--and quite liked the symbolic changing backdrop shifts from black smokestack, (the creeping industrialism and Simon's move towards its worst elements)m to an assemblage of sewing machines, (the ascendancy of female power).
I liked Sara's simple black dancer's dress and the several poses reminiscent of a Soyer painting . I was also taken with Deborah's stark plaster-cast whiteness--the Diana Vreeland-like groteque makeup, the white gown with its clever bib and removable top for the breast-baring scene. Those towering white shoes (a metaphor for the toppling of her towering strength?) were, alas, quite distracting. Unfortunately, there's more that didn't than did work. Van Hove's vision is so unremittingly stylized and heavy-handed, that it defeats his stated vision of theater as something that "should rise above reality" and "become poetry". Even the most dramatic and likely to be remembered nude scenes--the mother baring her breast, husband and wife completely naked and crawling all over the floor and each other-- bear this heavy-handed touch, which robs them of their intended eroticism. The repeated masturbatory clutching at breasts and crotches is again less erotic than reminiscent of a Liza Minelli or Michael Jackson performance.
If you've wondered why I've said nothing about the actors, it's that even they are overwhelmed by the director's demands for rigid movements, floor crawling, long manically mumbled soliloquies, shifts from whispering to shouting. The nude dance between husband and wife is so acrobatically choreographed that you're aroused mainly by sympathy for the physical demands made on Jenny Bacon.(At one point she's also required to hoist Simon's brother Joel (Robert Pethoff).
Joan MacIntosch, while not required to lift anyone, nevertheless deserves special praise not just for her well-timed delivery of the evening's laugh lines but for the way she manages to pace around in a pair of shoes with higher platforms and heels than you're likely to see on the hookers roaming the still non-Disnified streets of Manhattan.
On the evening I attended, all three of these game actors already showed physical battle scars--Jenny Bacon's body bore several black and blue marks, MacIntosch's one ankle was sheathed in an ace bandage and Tim Hopper bravely soldiered through the final scenes even though he almost completely lost his voice. Since MacIntosch is a trained healing therapist, perhaps she can keep herself and her colleagues from further pain and injury during the rest of the run.
Am I glad I went? Yes.
Would I recommend it? Think John Cage. . . Merce Cunningham. . . art galleries that show installations of every day objects and canvases with a single dot. If these are sounds and sights that you can appreciate, you'll find your share of laughs and things to admire at this More Stately Mansions. You also need the sitzfleisch to last through 3 and a half hours (and don't forget, that it starts at 7 p.m.).
Readers interested in the questions raised by adaptations of the works of dead writers, especially if those adaptations go counter to the playwright's wishes or intent, might want to read our comments regarding a play presented last year by Classic Stage Company--a "re-imagining" of a classic play by a contemporary playwright re-imagined a play by Garcia Lorca (Another Part of the House).
Other O'Neill plays recently reviewed: Ah Wilderness. . .Desire Under the Elms
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