‘Desire Under the Elms’ on Broadway: What did the critics think?


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A hot-and-heavy revival of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Desire Under the Elms’ opened on Broadway yesterday at the St. James Theatre. The production, starring Carla Gugino, Brian Dennehy and Pablo Schreiber, originated at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and is directed by Robert Falls.

Written in 1924, the tragic play tells the story of Ephraim Cabot (Dennehy), an aging landowner who is engaged in a battle with his son Eben (Schreiber) for control of the family farm. The father weds a much younger woman, Abbie (Gugino), whose own greed and sexual attraction to Eben leads to dire consequences.


The production, with its abstract sets (no elms to be found) and emphasis on the lusty nature of its characters, is proving to be divisive. The critics seem to either love it or hate it.

Keep reading for the critics’ reactions...

Charles Isherwood of the New York Times praised it as a ‘gutsy revival,’ adding that ‘rarely has sexual passion been depicted with such tense, animalistic ferocity on a Broadway stage.’ He concluded his review by writing that ‘the production manages to transcend the play’s flaws to transmit the penetrating truth of O’Neill’s underlying vision, of the ineradicable human need to possess and be possessed.’

David Sheward, of Backstage, called it an ‘intense, sizzling revival.’ He singled out Gugino’s performance as Abbie, describing her as ‘a rural combination of Medea and Phèdre [who] will stop at nothing to achieve her ends.’

Variety’s David Rooney expressed admiration for Robert Falls’ conceptual direction: ‘The staging is grimly overwrought, with an intensity that never quite translates into emotional impact, yet its unyielding harshness is undeniably compelling.’

Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press also praised the production, writing that ‘this revival is a must for any serious theatergoer.’ He added that the cast members are ‘at the top of their game’ and that ‘Falls’ vision is one of monumental tragedy inspired by scorching sexual attraction.’

On the opposite side of the critical spectrum, the New York Daily News’ Joe Dziemianowicz called the production ‘baffling’ and faulted the high-concept directorial approach. ‘No trees. No subtlety. Lots of concepts. And rocks,’ he wrote.

John Simon of Bloomberg also had problems with the production’s abstract set: ‘The play runs to 100 tortured, and torturing, intermissionless minutes, perhaps to deny us a respite during which we might speculate about just how lucrative the trade in boulders could have been in 1850s New England.’

-- David Ng