Desire Under the Elms -- Theater Review

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They lost me at Bob Dylan.

To be sure, there already had been plenty of strangeness on display in the new Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms." The set, for example, which with its giant rocks resembles a stone quarry -- a large house that rises and falls as if threatening to crush a wicked witch -- and nary an elm in sight. Or the sweaty Neanderthals in the opening scene, gutting a large pig and generally acting like refugees from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

But when Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" began blaring through the speakers, while actors Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino went through a series of silent activities, the production confirmed its wrongheadedness.

It's easy to see what director Robert Falls is aiming for with his production, which garnered much acclaim at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. His Expressionistic staging clearly seems designed to accentuate the stylized aspects of this problematic, Greek tragedy-inspired work.

Unfortunately, his choices too often call attention to themselves, rather than enhancing the emotional impact of the overheated melodrama.

Set in 1850, O'Neill's drama revolves around elderly, mean-spirited New England farm owner Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy), who returns home with his new, much-younger third wife Abbie (Gugino). His son, Eben (Schreiber), is none too happy with the arrival because he figures she'll inherit the farm that rightfully is his. He soon gets over it, though, as he and the luscious bride soon engage in a torrid affair that produces tragic consequences.

The production strongly emphasizes the play's sexuality, with Abbie and Eben exchanging lustful looks and cavorting like animals in heat. The results indeed are hot, especially because the devastatingly sexy Gugino and gym-toned Schreiber are not at all unwilling to display themselves in a state of undress.

But the play ultimately is more about simple animal lust, and that too often is lost in the overheated, gimmicky staging. It's hard to concentrate on the action when one is distracted by things like a bed that rises from the floor like something out of a James Bond film.

The actors do what they can with the material, though more consistent accents would help. Dennehy, an O'Neill veteran, uses his booming voice and daunting physical presence to great effect as Ephraim, even managing at times to make the character sympathetic. Gugino displays an impressively feral intensity that makes Abbie's ultimately horrific behavior all the more convincing. Schreiber is less impressive, all too credibly embodying Ephraim's description of the character as a "simpleton" while failing to convey his underlying cunning.

Falls has made numerous changes to the work, which runs an intermission-free 100 minutes. Characters and scenes have been cut, and a couple of lengthy silent montages -- one performed to the accompaniment of the aforementioned Dylan song -- have been added. Not helping is that the production is housed in the large St. James, a theater used more commonly for large-scale musicals.

But then again, you need an awfully large stage to fit all of those rocks.

Venue: St. James Theatre, New York (Through July 5)
Cast: Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber, Boris McGiver, Daniel Stewart Sherman
Playwright: Eugene O'Neill
Director: Robert Falls
Scenic designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting designer: Michael Philippi
Original music/sound designer: Richard Woodbury