Desire Under The Elms

  • Date:
    April 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    I couldn�t decide if it was this production I didn�t like or if it was the play itself, so I read the text after the performance. It�s a draw. This is a very difficult play. Not only because of the subject matter, which, besides desire, includes a tiny detail called infanticide, but because of the consarned accents that O�Neill has written into the text. They are tongue twisters. NB �A woman�s got to have a home,� reads �A woman's got t' hev a hum.� This is the equivalent of making the actors pat their head and rub their stomach in a clockwise direction.

    Considering the production itself, well, O�Neill is one of those writers who is very specific with his stage directions. Here is what he wrote for this play.

    The action of the entire play takes place in, and immediately outside of, the Cabot farmhouse in New England, in the year 1850. The south end of the house faces front to a stone wall with a wooden gate at center opening on a country road. The house is in good condition but in need of paint. Its walls are a sickly grayish, the green of the shutters faded. Two enormous elms are on each side of the house. They bend their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.

    So, the elms have something to do with the tone of the play � hence the title. O�Neill thought they were important. But Robert Falls doesn�t. This production has no elms. What it does have is boulders. Enormous boulders. They are stacked, they are strewn, they are even hanging in mid air from enormous ropes both in front and in back of a sort of gauzy scrip that gives the impression this play takes place under water. And finally, the farmhouse over which everyone is fighting is lowered from the fly gallery as needed, and when not needed it hangs in the air, hovering over the characters. They have a house hanging over them � get it?

    What all this boils down to is that this story does not look like it is taking place in New England. It looks like it is taking place on Mars. So the crucial recurring phrase of �purty, ain�t it� makes not a lot of sense. The characters are fighting over real estate that is as inviting as a granite quarry.

    On the desire side there is a lot to say. Carla Gugino as Abbie is thrilling to watch. She has a grounded quality and moves with the precision of a dancer. You don�t know why she wants this pile of rocks called a farm but you surely believe she does. As Eben Cabot, Pablo Schreiber does his best work when he keeps his mouth closed. He has a fierce tussle with the accent, and seems locked into the one note of brooding when he is not connected to Gugino. She seems to give him fire, which is part of the story, but he sputters in her absence. Brian Dennehy does a great deal of striding and shout outs to God and the Fates. I like his film work very much, but on the stage he seems more involved in listening to his own voice as opposed to listening to the other actors. And whatever you want to call that gesture where he swipes at his upper lip as though he were trying to see if his moustache was growing in � well, someone ought to ask him to think of another few bits of business.

    There is a lot of directorial pointing in this production, as though Mr. Falls isn�t certain we would get the message unless we are hit over the head. The house hanging over them all is one. Eben�s bath scene where he strips and enters the tub all the while watching Abbie hang laundry and watch him right back. The DESIRE scene where Abbie and Eben seem to see through walls that aren�t there and reach out to one another.

    This combined with the fact that the text has been gutted substantially, with the elimination of the town�s folk, the elder brothers� detailed banter about the land they want for their own selves, the last line of the sheriff that it�s a Jim Dandy farm and he wished he owned it leaves this play without much of a spine and on another planet.

    The result? Desire - 10. Elms - 0.



    What the press had to say.....

    "primal drives take on an eerie, entrancing strangeness in the gutsy revival "
    Charles Isherwood
    New York Times

    "baffling revival..., an audacious interpretation..., which is overcooked."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "Leave your sense of irony at home and embrace the insanity, and you won't find a more intense experience on Broadway."
    Elisabeth Voincentelli
    New York Post

    "a torrid melodrama of murder and adultery, crazed love and mad hate, crude in many ways but undeniably theatrical."
    John Simon

    "one of this season's most brutal and rewarding experiences."
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "they have turned a strange imperfect play into strange but confident theater." Linda Winner

    "there's nothing melodramatic or phony about this intense, sizzling revival."
    David Sheward
    Back Stage

    "impresses more with ambition than result."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "more about the style than substance."
    Roma Torre

    "overheated, gimmicky staging"
    Frank Scheck
    Hollywood Reporter

    "Call his "Desire Under the Elms" overblown or unmodulated; just don't call it timid."
    David Rooney