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A CurtainUp Review
The Mourning Show
by Les Gutman
Seeing Before Breakfast at Provincetown Playhouse has its own romantic appeal. (It is this year's entry in The Playwrights Theater's continuing project of presenting O'Neill's entire canon chronologically on the stage on which his work was first presented to New York audiences.) O'Neill wrote the play in Provincetown during the summer of 1916. Later that year, it premiered at this theater (with O'Neill himself directing and playing the silent role of Alfred). He had just ended a year's detour under the tutelage of George Pierce Baker at Harvard (represented by last season's Playwrights Theater offering, The Personal Equation, our review linked below), and most O'Neill commentators view it as the beginning of his coming into his own voice.
Two recent productions which included, separately, Before Breakfast and The Stronger also whetted one's appetite for The Mourning Show. (Links at the end of this review.) Sanctuary Theatre presented a powerful staging of the former play, directed by Rip Torn and featuring his daughter, Danae. Theatre et al presented the Strindberg work as a part of a fascinating exploration in which it was combined with the another of the playwright's small plays, Paria, under the title Secrets of the Yellow Room.
It is thus with great disappointment that I must report that the The Mourning Show neither satisfies the anticipation, nor even makes a serious attempt at what it sets out to do. Mr. Murphy has made bizarre, misguided alterations in the work of the playwright he is putatively celebrating, and his integration of The Stronger is perfunctory -- limited to letting us hear a recorded voice recite an excerpt from Strindberg's text, played through the malfunctioning television set of Mrs. Rowland (Lona Leigh), the wife in Before Breakfast. (We do not see the screen as it faces away from the audience, and lighting designer Matthew Adelson could not even be bothered to give the reflection the characteristic "blue glow," -- the set emits a white light.)
Ms. Leigh's performance could be faulted for its overly sexual nature, and the one-dimensionality of sardonic rage she exudes, but she acquits herself reasonably well within these flawed notions which are most likely director/adaptor Murphy's construct. Mr. Murphy has reïmagined Before Breakfast as taking place on Christmas Eve rather than the fall day on which O'Neill set it, for no good reason other than that it is on that day that The Stronger takes place. He also moves the year forward to 1956 -- a year best remembered for the posthumous premiere of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, here employed presumably so that the device of the television would not be an anachronism. (This would be a good point to mention Roger Hanna's set design, which is picture perfect in its period depiction of the Rowland's shabby apartment.)
What's most mystifying, perhaps, is that Murphy has chosen to let us see the husband Alfred (Jonathan Oliver Sessler) throughout the play whereas O'Neill made a point of hiding him from our view except for the brief appearance of his hand (the stage direction: "He reaches his hand into the room for it. It is a sensitive hand with slender fingers. It trembles and some of the water spills on the floor.) He also monkeys with the play's final moment, stripping it of its essential energy. For heaven's sake, why?
One might understand why Mr. Murphy would give short shrift to his "tandem" presentation of The Stronger had it been paired with four-plus hours of the Iceman Cometh, but The Mourning Show lasts a scant twenty-two minutes, which makes it seem a rip-off, even at the $12 asking price. Let's hope in future seasons Mr. Murphy can find a more fitting way to celebrate our greatest playwright.
The Personal Equation
Before Breakfast (Sanctuary Theatre)
Secrets of the Yellow Room
Eugene O'Neill's Playwright's Album