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|A CurtainUp Review
The Personal Equation
By Les Gutman
Normally, if a show is going to run as briefly as this one, we'd just write a bit about it in CurtainUp's news column Etcetera. But this (apparently first-ever) production of O'Neill's 1915 Harvard playwriting seminar assignment is not normal. Like Not About Nightingales, the early unproduced play by Tennessee Williams that was only discovered a few years ago, Personal Equation is no contestant for the top rung of O'Neill's canon. However, it reveals so many harbingers of what will make O'Neill one of our greatest playwrights, getting the rare chance to see it makes spending a super-humid weekend in the New York City summer suddenly seem like a good idea.
The Playwrights Theater, which is in the third year of its chronological presentation of O'Neill's 49 plays, has gone out of its way to give the play its due. A remarkable agile, complex and evocative set, fine costumes, particularly nifty lighting and powerful sound effects provide the support for Director Murphy's effort. That he is able to effortlessly herd a cast of 20 around on a stage that looks big enough for perhaps four actors borders on miraculous. Some of those actors -- Ralph Waite, Daniel McDonald, Con Horgan and Barbara Poitier in particular -- give estimable performances.
The play is set in the revolutionary days of the Wobblies, and their efforts to gain rights for workers in the Atlantic shipping trade. It rests also on a love story. Waite and McDonald play an estranged father and son, both named Thomas Perkins. Kristin Taylor plays the anarchist Olga Tarnoff, and is the younger Tom's lover. Whether out of love or conviction, Tom passes out leaflets at the shipping company where he is a clerk, and signs on to place dynamite in the engines of one of its ships. It turns out to be the ship on which his father, a loyal employee, is second engineer. After the elder Perkins accidentally shoots his son, the three of them are brought together in the hospital room of Tom, who is in a practically-vegitative state.
It will be some time before O'Neill acquires the grace and poetry that mark his best plays. What's fascinating are those glimpses we do get -- obviously taking rough aim at The Hairy Ape, and more obliquely raising themes that will eventually resonate in Anna Christie, Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra and the many fathers and sons that are all really just James and Eugene.
I mention only at the end yet another reason to see this produciton: it's FREE. Tickets are 1st come-1st served at the box office, beginning at 5 P.M. of each performance day. There's also an informative pre-show revue, at 7 P.M. each night, that mixes a number of songs in with its lesson.
LINKS TO OTHER SHOWS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of Not About Nightingales