Two of New York's most prominent experimental troupes, the Wooster Group and Richard Maxwell's New York City Players, have joined forces to tackle a trio of early one-act dramas written by Eugene O'Neill about seafaring men and that vast expanse of briny rootlessness that is their existential home.
There are, in short, three contrasting sensibilities at work in this production of "Early Plays," which opened Thursday at REDCAT, where it runs through Sunday. But they are united in their desire to cleanse the palate of theatergoers accustomed to a menu of stale and flavorless familiarity. It may take you some time to adjust to a mash-up that can leave an impression as disparate as apples and oranges, but as the kooky coherence takes hold, O'Neill's vision (if not his voice) is renewed.
Grouped together as the Glencairn plays, these impressionistic sketches about the crew members of the S.S. Glencairn are minor in scale — each work takes less than a half-hour to perform — but they mark an important early phase in O'Neill's war against shopworn convention.
Setting out to present, in the author's own words, "merchant-sailor life on a tramp steamer as it really is," they combine "sordidness" with inexplicable "romance," melancholy with unruly adventure.
Aiming for a new realism, O'Neill has his characters speak in dialects that are phonetically spelled out. Unfortunately, his ear wasn't the best and too often the shipmates seem like parodies of their nationality — with the Irishman, naturally, always "dyin' wid impatience to have a dhrink."
The risible quality of the language is the reason "Moon of the Caribbees," "Bound East for Cardiff" or "The Long Voyage Home" are rarely revived today. Nearly 100 years old, these works behave in ways that can still be strikingly original, but as soon as they start talking they sound like phonographic antiques.
Maxwell puts his own distinctive gloss on this problem. A playwright and director who has patented an acting style of affectless neutrality, he has his performers deliver O'Neill's dialogue in a monotone that is often at odds with the combustible content of what is being spoken. Rather than trying to conceal the inadvertent humor of the stilted patois, this tactic dryly acknowledges the verbal awkwardness, theatrically incorporating it and thereby freeing us from being so hung up on the mode of expression that we fail to see the matter of what is being expressed.
Repurposing the set designed by Jim Clayburgh and Elizabeth LeCompte that was used for the Wooster Group's landmark productions of "The Emperor Jones" and "The Hairy Ape," Maxwell strips his staging of the layered multimedia accouterment that is the Wooster Group's trademark. Technological bells and whistles are out, lanterns and musical interludes (with original songs by Maxwell) are in.
From certain perspectives, the ship setting resembles a boxing ring, at once open and confining, the perfect forum for cooped up men to unleash their testosterone-fueled demons. Without the extraneous trappings of realism to distract us, thematic patterns come more readily into view. Indeed, there's a kind of tidal rhythm to the longing for shore that besets the men, who even in their drunken revelry are as bored as they are busy.
"Moon of the Caribbees" was O'Neill's favorite among his maritime one-acts, the play that he called his "first real break with theatrical traditions."
But it is the one that eludes Maxwell's grasp. He fails to establish the island mood that has ignited the primitive nature of the shipmates and he narrows the range of characters, blurring distinctions in a free-form work that is more of a violent dance than a fully developed tale. Meaning gets swallowed in the general tumult.
"Bound East for Cardiff," in which Ari Fliakos' Driscoll comforts Brian Mendes' dying Yank, concentrates its strength more effectively. Confined to a dimly lighted corner of the stage, the piece is presented as though it were a quasi radio play.
Perhaps Maxwell doesn't want us to experience this death scene too directly out of fear of overplaying the sentiment. Nevertheless, the bond between these men, whose souls are as weather-beaten as their skin, is tenderly realized in a dreamy pathos destined to be blown away with the next shift in winds.
The inherent melodrama of "The Long Voyage Home," about a Swedish sailor shanghaied on the eve of his returning home, is softened by Maxwell's stylized approach to the villainy. (He treats it much the same way he treats the play's parlance — like a curious vestige of outdated dramaturgy.)
Bobby McElver, who plays the victimized sailor, invests the character with a sweet contemporary doltishness that becomes almost unbearably touching. In a cast that includes the remarkable (and underutilized) Kate Valk and the effortlessly pungent Jim Fletcher, two veterans of New York's downtown theater scene, McElver best exemplifies the weird rightness of Maxwell's aesthetic experiment.
Satisfyingly minor, "Early Plays" is a curio by trailblazing artists with little in common but their mutually illuminating differences.
Where: REDCAT, 631 West 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ends February 24.
Contact: (213) 237-2800 or http://www.redcat.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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