'Anna Christie' harbors but a spark of greatness

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Eugene O'Neill's 'Anna Christie' invites overacting, but the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble still needs direction

There's no shortage of acting in the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie." Accents are adorned like fake noses, illnesses resemble those found in 19th century operas and bits of melodramatic business might as well be underscored with the clashing of cymbals.

What's missing from the production — which stars Jeff Perry (a Steppenwolf Theatre Company veteran and cast member of the hit television series "Scandal") and his daughter, rising actress Zoe Perry, as the play's long-estranged father and daughter — is the kind of directorial guidance that could infuse all this sound and fury with some resonant stillness.

The old-fashioned acting heaves in one direction; Kim Rubinstein's superficially modern staging tugs in another. Emotional combustion fortunately arrives with the introduction of Mat Burke (played by Kevin McKidd of "Grey's Anatomy"), the Irish shipman who washes up from the sea and falls madly in love with Anna, a sickly young woman with a checkered past who has sought sanctuary on her captain father's coal barge.

The plot belongs to another era, revolving around Anna's redemption from her life as a former prostitute after the neglect and exploitation of her childhood. But in trying to stylistically update O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1921 drama, this mismanaged revival makes the work seem irretrievably outdated.

Wilson Chin's semi-abstract set design — a raised platform that functions as barroom and boat, surrounded by a border of water standing in for "dat ole davil sea" — is treated by Rubinstein without much concern for common-sense logistics. Absent entirely is a sense of proportion. When the fog rolls in midway through the first act, the effect is so overdone that it's hard to make out what's happening on stage through stinging, watering eyes.

In O'Neill's drama, the fog is, of course, symbolic of the blindness with which the characters muddle their way into the future. Here, it's indicative of a production that is unable to effectively marshal its resources in the intimate space.

In the role of the Swedish captain Chris Christopherson, Jeff Perry gives a broad sketch of this weather-beaten seaman who has turned his back on long ocean voyages and the loneliness and drunken misery he associates with such a life. It's a characterization that stops short of being comic but has some of the same bluster and blunder one finds in the characters of Synge and O'Casey. The production, however, doesn't establish an assured tone for Perry's performance.

O'Neill, who was never known for his acute ear, had a bad habit of writing out speech patterns phonetically. Perry seems straitjacketed by Chris' pidgin English, his mouth forming around his lines as though he were swallowing Swedish meatballs.

The oddness of the portrayal is thrown into relief in the opening scene by Tait Ruppert's nonchalant bartender, who could pass for a waiter at a chain restaurant in Santa Monica. This character may not have a cumbersome accent, but surely he ought to inhabit the same time period as Mary Mara's Marthy Owen, a Dickensian barfly and Chris' bedmate who offers Anna a look into her own future if she doesn't straighten out her ways.

Zoe Perry's accent screams Minnesota, which is where Anna went to live as a young girl with her mother, who died during the voyage. This isn't the only dimension of her performance that is pitched too strenuously.

Pauline Lord, who originated the role of Anna on Broadway, was renowned for the hushed quality of her tragic realism. Perry makes intelligent choices with her interpretation of a woman whose cruel, exploited life hasn't sullied her innermost being, but the gap between character and actress is far too visible. O'Neill invites overacting, but he needs sacrificial immersion.

There are a few clarifying moments of blasting anger between Anna and Chris, but the cathartic fires really only ignite in the scenes between Anna and McKidd's Mat, who doesn't want to love her after she reveals the truth about her past, yet cannot stop. This is an O'Neill play that ends on a hopeful note, though naturally it takes several near catastrophes and a quasi-exorcism to get there.

The production, shot through with the plaintive jazz of sound designer Martin Gutfeldt's saxophone (another of Rubinstein's empty gestures), never finds a coherent rhythm. But a spark of what made O'Neill the great American dramatist (despite his myriad flaws as a writer) comes through. When the fog lifts (glory be to God), a haunted happy ending is the reward.


'Anna Christie'

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends March 8.

Tickets: $34.99

Info: (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2;

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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