'The Hairy Ape': Theater Review

The Hairy Ape Production Still - Publicity - H 2017
Stephanie Berger
Cannavale's visceral performance and the ingenious, overwhelming staging will blow you away.

Bobby Cannavale stars in this landmark production of Eugene O'Neill's 1922 classic, staged in the massive environs of the Park Avenue Armory.

Environmental theater doesn’t come any more powerful than the staging of The Hairy Ape being performed at the Park Avenue Armory. Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist drama is rarely seen these days, but director Richard Jones’ production brings it to magnificent life with a visually stunning, stylized rendition that gains resonance from its overwhelming setting. You may have previously seen the play, but you’ve definitely never seen it like this.

Adapted from a 2015 staging at London’s Old Vic, the piece is performed in front of the audience seated on risers that extend into the upper rafters of the building. The action takes place on a revolving, conveyer belt-like stage that serves as an ironic visual commentary on the play’s scathing portrait of the Industrial Age. The building’s massive interiors loom in the background, providing an uncomfortable reminder that this drama about the conflict between the upper and lower classes is being staged in what is perhaps ground zero of the one percent.

In a perfect casting choice, Bobby Cannavale superbly brings his raw, macho physicality to the leading role of Yank, a coal stoker working in the fiery bowels of a transatlantic ocean liner carrying rich passengers. When first seen, Yank seems to know his place in the world, reveling in his hard work and carousing with his fellow laborers, including the older Irishman, Paddy (David Costabile, currently seen on Showtime’s Billions), who nostalgically reminisces about sailing ships; and Long (Chris Bannow), an Englishman who preaches the ideals of socialism.

Yank’s emotional world suddenly shatters with the unexpected visit to the ship’s engine room of Mildred (Catherine Combs), the socialite daughter of a rich steel manufacturer, who’s traveling with her aunt (Becky Ann Baker). Upon sighting the sweaty, half-naked, soot-covered Yank, Mildred reflexively calls him a “filthy beast” and promptly faints.

Incensed at this humiliation, Yank becomes intent on exacting revenge — motivated perhaps, as several of his co-workers note, by love as much as hate. When the ship docks in Manhattan, Yank and Long disembark, exploring the city filled with rich swells. Yank angrily assaults one of them and is put in jail; upon his release, he joins the International Workers of the World, only to be rebuffed when he tries to urge them to violence. Finally, he winds up at the zoo, where he encounters what he considers to be a kindred spirit, a male gorilla locked in his cage. He attempts to forge a connection with the savage beast, with tragic results.

Written in slangy dialect often hard to decipher, the play is not exactly subtle in its language and themes. Director Jones exploits that artificiality by visually emphasizing the elemental aspects. The area in which the men hang out is colored a bright, sulfurous yellow (as are the audience members’ seats, as if establishing complicity), while the engine room is hellishly red and the union headquarters a gleaming white, representing a bastion of enlightenment. The rich people marching down Fifth Avenue are dressed in identical black suits and dresses, their faces hidden by masks. At one point they break out into a macabre dance, as if celebrating their social superiority. Throughout the piece there are striking visual tableaus featuring the performers in careful poses that give the stage pictures the feel of paintings.

Imaginative visual touches abound (set and costume design is by Stewart Laing), including giant letters spelling out the name “Douglas Steel”; a large balloon on which the smiling face of the company’s magnate represents the Man in the Moon; and a massive steel girder from which Cannavale hangs precipitously. That’s not the only intensely physical element of a visceral turn in which the actor leaps about his confines in a manner resembling the animal to which he’s been compared. His voice bellowing and his muscles pumped, he’s at once a stirringly defiant and poignantly tragic figure.

The technical elements, including Mimi Jordan Sherin’s haunting lighting and Sarah Angliss' music and industrial sound design, add greatly to the overall power of the proceedings. So do the hard-working efforts of the ensemble, many of them playing multiple roles.

Admittedly, The Hairy Ape hasn’t aged especially well, often coming across like a theatrical relic. But this landmark production provides a sense of the bone-chilling excitement it must originally have generated.

Venue: Park Avenue Armory, New York
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Becky Ann Baker, David Costabile, Chris Bannow, Tommy Bracco, Emmanuel Brown, Nicholas Bruder, Catherine Combs, Phil Hill, Cosmo Jarvis, Mark Junek, Henry Stram, Samar Williams, Isadora Wolfe, Amos Wolff
Playwright: Eugene O’Neill
Director: Richard Jones
Set & costume designer: Steward Laing
Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Music & sound designer: Sarah Angliss
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Presented by the Park Avenue Armory