Because I have not suffered enough, I went this Sunday matinee to see the Goodman Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, much praised by reviewers and driving away the audience in droves, so scheduled for an early demise. Having had the good fortune this week to connect with two very bright ladies close to and involved with theatre(am spelling it the Goodman way), one of whom told me she had fallen asleep in the course of viewing it; forewarned, I nonetheless made my way to the cut-rate ticket booths, where almost everything is 50% off except for Hair and God and Carnage, the two things I really want to see, and bought my ticket.
In my youth, which never seemed that long ago until this week, I had some heavy interaction with that property, as I was in love with Tony Perkins, being built up at the time as the new teenage movie Idol, and he was scheduled to do the movie of it with Sophia Loren. I was of course deeply jealous of Sophia Loren as a matter of principle, but had no reason to be with respect to Tony. It was still the era of the Love that Dared Not Speak its Name, certainly not in Hollywood, where a career would be ruined if anyone knew, so I blithely assumed there was no physical interaction between us because he was respecting my young Jewish maidenhood, and was devastated to discover later on I had lost him to Tab Hunter.
But on the set of Desire at Paramount, I had less reason to be jealous of Sophia than Dorothy Jeakins, the costume designer, who constantly praised not just Sophia’s breasts but the tininess of her rib cage, and got to touch Tony all the time, fitting his clothes. So there he was, playing Eben, less tormented that he might be losing the farm than that Sophia would eat him alive, she was so much woman. Anyway that is the old story, but now we must deal with Mr. O’Neill.
One of the bright theatre ladies said she understood the plot was from a Greek myth. I have of late been much involved with Greek myths on several levels, having been, I hoped, inspired to write a play, and remembering I had a mind since there’s a Bryn Mawr reunion coming up, read several plays by Aeschylus, which ain’t easy. This production of Desire begins not with a whimper but a Bang, perhaps meant to be a thunderclap, followed by drums and many terrible sounds as two Neanderthalish men, meant to be the older sons of Ephraim Cabot(played stirringly but by the end who really cares) by Brian Dennehy, drag in what my friend Tyne Daly in a Getty(in LA) production of Agamemnon in which she appeared , fierce and impressive, told me was a sledge, the way old Aeschylus brought in offstage action, in that case a couple of bodies, but in this case was rocks. Rocks everywhere. No sign of elms, but rocks all around, hanging suspended in space, doing everything but getting themselves off. Not so in the case of the young lovers, Ephraim’s new young wife, played by Carla Gugino whom I really admired because she was tiny and did not bring me in mind of Sophia, and Pablo Schreiber, who played the young son, and put me much in mind of Tony when he was young and no one knew he was gay, or, as it later turned out with the help of Victoria Principal, bi-sexual. Tony’s personal tragedy might have challenged O’Neill, as having married a lovely woman, Berry Berenson, and fathering two sons, he was among the first of the highly visible to die of AIDS, and Berry, his gifted, aquamarine-eyed widow was in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.
But back to this play. The almost constant intrusion of music to lessen the stolid weightiness of the plot put me in mind of Impressionism, the awful play that had just closed next door, where the music, looped in over the silences and poor dialogue like a 40 s movie where they needed to make it seem weighty or moving faster when there was no action, was more than disconcerting. I see that concert is in the middle of that word, which makes me wonder. Anyway, the lust of the two young principles is palpable. Dennehy is fine, albeit diminished in stature during the course of the story so he seems almost to grow shorter by the end of it.
A friend of mine, Susan Dorlen, went to Yale Drama School, where her teacher said ‘The great tragedian of American writers is Eugene O’Neill, and that is the tragedy of the American theater.’ Across the street from ‘Desire’ is ‘August, Osage County,’ which I considered to be ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ turned on its side and made into a comedy. But I’ll tell you, when Abby, the young wife, kills her baby to prove to Eben that she loves him, I could not help thinking about O’Neill, the bastard really knew how to plot.
Or maybe it was the Greeks.