Desire Under The Elms: A Review

Thanks to the vagaries of tickets being passed down through friends I got the opportunity tonight to see the current Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under The Elms."

Going into this show I knew nothing about it, other than it had a stellar cast, and had transferred from the the Goodman in Chicago. I checked a synopsis of the play... a pastoral drama, set in 1900's New England about three sons fighting to inherit their mean spirited and manipulative father's farm. It conjures certain images, right?

As the curtain rose I was greeted with something I NEVER expected. The show began with a burst of white light and the sound of an explosion as played on a bass. The set revealed behind the curtain was an enormous pile of grey stone with a dead pig hanging from its rear feet stage left. Large boulders were suspended from the fly by gigantic loops of rope and two men in filthy rags were moving stones around on stage. Is this a post-apocalyptic retelling of the story? Was I in the wrong theatre? I wasn't sure. A few minutes into the show as the three brothers had been introduced and the nugget of the conflict between them had started to be revealed I was faced with something even odder.

The basic thrust is this: Dad is an ass. The youngest son is only a half-brother to the other two, and the two older brothers know that they have no chance of inheriting the farm, so they are leaving. The younger son blames dad for working his mom to death and for stealing the land from her, so he assumes the land should rightfully be his when Dad kicks it. Dad has other ideas as he soon drags home a new bride who is under the assumption that all this will be HERS when her elderly husband shuffles off. So the over arcing theme of the show, the disposition of this farm, comes to be represented very literally by a two story farm house that is lowered in and spends the rest of the show suspended and dangling over the heads of the cast. Their greatest desire, just out of their reach, but ever present and threatening to crush them. Get it?

The weird boulders also continually hang there... but I never quite figured out what they were supposed to represent.

We are told repeatedly by the characters, both in dialogue and in wistful scenes where they stare off into the fourth wall, how "purdy" the land that they are fighting over is. All we can see as the audience is the grey of the rock, the house, the rear wall, the floor, the furniture... the never ending dull dreary grey. It really left me wondering why the heck anybody would be fighting over it in the first place. The youngest son even bribes his older brothers to leave, giving them enough money to sail to California and join the gold rush. Enough money in fact that he probably could have just bought his own land elsewhere and washed his hands of the entire problem. I THINK that his desire for the land was supposed to be truly about his desire to see his dead mother happy, but again, if the land were her spirit shouldn't it have been marginally comforting?

The show is rarely performed, and I can see why. It is written in a thick Maine (I guess?) dialect and is often hard to understand. None of the characters are particularly likable, and none of them seem like the type you want to root for. The script is often as bleak as the setting we were given. Granted O'Neill writes some dark, disturbed characters, but I can't help but wonder if we had seen some beautiful elms on stage, or a touch of any color at all in fact, would it have served as a better counter-point to the dreary script, rather than constantly underlining the script visually. I'm also not sure if it was just a function of the dating of the script, but there was never really a plot twist that I didn't see coming. Maybe in the intervening years too many people have ripped off these ideas, but every solution the characters had was at once obvious, and utterly wrong. Even their final decision, leaving the father alone and shattered, the sole possessor of the land he had tempted them with, seemed forced, and only to be made because the script demanded that they leave stage at that point.

I've seen in other reviews that a good deal of the dialogue was cut to keep the show at it's rather brisk 100 minutes (no intermission) which would explain why everything seemed very clipped and precise, with none of the expounding and expanding that O'Neill usually gives us. The situation never really seemed real, the stacatto delivery of every line in the show left me me with a feeling that I was watching a very good table read, but something that should flesh out more during rehearsal.

In all I would say that I would have found this an excellent production if it had been a bunch of graduate students. I think the director wanted a grand sweeping epic along the lines of Shakespeare (he also directed last year's Lear, with some of the same cast and creative team) but what he ended up with a post-apocalyptic Lifetime movie. At least the set was fun to look at, and intriguing to watch, even if the metaphor was a bit ham-fisted.

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