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Theater Review: Desire Under the Elms

Lesley Valdes, WRTI's critic-at-large, reviews the Eugene O'Neill play starring Brian Dennehy. Desire Under the Elms will end its run at New York City's St. James Theatre on May 24th.
Hard times haven't hurt Broadway as much as we feared. Almost four dozen Tony nominees, a record number, have edged out powerful plays and potent actors including the acclaimed Desire Under the Elms that came from Chicago's Goodman Theater to Broadway's St. James. It's Eugene O' Neill at his most Oedipal even Wagnerian . And here's the rub: abbreviated. Desire, which has had about a half hour of its text and a couple of minor characters cut, is played without intermission, which heightens its tragic dimension. It also helps an audience impatient with the author's antiquated language - all those ayehs and purdys O'Neill thought helped the New England setting and are thankfully uttered with ease by these artists.

Pablo Schreiber is the son in love with his father's wife, Carla Gugino is the beatuous Abby Putnam, the role played in the movie by Sophia Loren. Gugino and Schreiber are extraordinary. A sizzle of hate, lust, love, suspicion. Brian Dennehy is monumental as the brutish Ephraim Cabot too old for such a wife; strong, mean, believable.

The flaw is Robert Falls' direction of Peter and Simeon. The Cabot brothers are played as mental deficients by Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman, big boys who suggest Fafner and Fasolt in the "Ring Cycle." The staging is definitely Wagnerian. Boulders are suspended over the stage to suggest the New England quarry, nary an elm in sight. Hydraulics move the Cabot's rather handsome wooden house up and down stage.

The acting is key: you will not forget the crime of passion and its torment. The lone figure of Cabot pulling his burdens, up the slop like Sissyphus. Staging and sound design for The Goodman's Desire Under the Elms on Broadway are not only magnificent, they are more magnified than necessary but we go with this because of the production's brevity -- and O'Neil's desire to create new myth.