Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” written in 1921, still has the tang of an experiment by a relatively young writer testing the frontiers of what the drama can do.
Mixing brutal expressionism with satiric lampoon, the play (subtitled “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes”) offers a portrait of the working man in the industrial age, his muscle used to fatten the coffers of the wealthy, his mind dismissed as primitive, more simian even than human.
After the Wooster Group thrillingly deconstructed “The Hairy Ape,” I wasn’t sure there was anything left to reveal. But the revival at the Odyssey Theatre, directed by the eminent British theater writer, director and actor Steven Berkoff, finds a fresh way in treating O’Neill’s play as a contemporary rallying cry addressed as much to our own gilded age as to O’Neill’s.
Nothing is updated, but outrage over the injustice of society’s dehumanization of a segment of the proletariat pulses through the production with the same intensity as a Bernie Sanders harangue against Wall Street.
As the opening scene makes clear, O’Neill knew well the hard-drinking, roughhousing ship workers he was writing about. The “firemen” in “The Hairy Ape,” those men in the stokehole who feed the ship’s furnaces with coal, are anything but saints. When not working in their cramped hell, they can be found brawling until they pass out from either booze or blows.
The violence of their interaction is stylized but at a fever pitch. Berkoff’s ensemble, which includes strong performances by Jeremiah O’Brian and Paul Stanko, attacks the group scenes with the requisite ferocity. A percussionist (Will Mahood) accompanies the firemen’s clobbering and stomping and effectively drowns out some of the heavily accented dialogue (never O’Neill’s strong suit).
Yank (a mesmerizingly fierce Haile D’Alan) is the king of this forecastle, a man who earns respect through superior strength alone. He is the drama’s Prometheus, the tortured protagonist who wants revenge after Mildred (Katy Davis), the vainly do-gooding daughter of a steel tycoon, ventures down into the stokehole to examine the working conditions only to leave fleeing in horror at the sight of “the filthy beast” roaring at his fellow workers.
Given that an African American actor is playing Yank, it would have made more sense for Berkoff to cast a more multicultural ensemble to avoid any pernicious racial overtones in the equation of Yank with a hairy ape.
O’Neill is writing about the plight of these workers, not America’s original sin. Yank is the sacrificial figure, the toughest of the lot who is also the most vulnerable.
This powerfully comes through in the production, but a more diverse set of actors would have precluded any unintentional associations with our racist past, particularly in the final scene, in which Yank trades places with a gorilla at the zoo.
In keeping with O’Neill’s play, the propulsive staging packs more of a visceral than an intellectual punch. “The Hairy Ape,” potent despite being structurally clumsy, works on our nervous systems. O’Neill labeled it a comedy, but as this revival demonstrates, it lays an audience flat with the brute force of a modern tragedy.
“The Hairy Ape.” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Check schedule for additional dates.) Ends July 17. $25-$34. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
FOR THE RECORD
May 18, 4:24 p.m.: An earlier version of this review misstated the end date for the show’s run at the Odyssey Theatre as June 17. It ends July 17.