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Off-Off-Broadway Review

The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Vol. 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays

The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Vol. 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays
Photo Source: Anton Nickel
This show's title is as wordy as Eugene O'Neill is with his stage directions. Poetic and verbose, O'Neill famously provided detailed and somewhat symbolic descriptions of his characters, their actions, and the scenes in his works. However, Michael Basile, an O'Neill scholar, wrote that "Eugene O'Neill's stage directions read better than they play," and nowhere is this fact more evident than in the New York Neo-Futurists wild romp through the instructions of seven of O'Neill's early, lesser-known works. While the performers' comic interpretations please at points, the gags become stale and redundant, as none of the plays make sense without the playwright's sharp dialogue.

The Neo-Futurists' famous "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" boasts 30 plays in 60 minutes, so these approximately 15-minute pieces are not as concise as the company's usual fare. Also, the plays have little plot, as the entire evening consists of literal interpretations of O'Neill's sometimes obscure comments. (How do you translate "He suggests by his demeanor the retired banker whose life has been uneventful and prosperous"?) Taken too exactly and wildly out of context, these directions almost too humorously jab at the playwright's lyrical language, and while it's usually loving mockery, this comic ode to O'Neill misses the essence of the writer.

Director and adapter Christopher Loar fails to elicit consistency in the interpretations of his seven-member cast. When characters are described as "pale" or "blushing," the actors powder their faces with a white or red substance, as appropriate. However, the performers do not artificially blush with every facial color cue. The actors also don't always follow the directions word for word—an exit back becomes an exit left—and they often anticipate their directions instead of waiting for the show's narrator to signal them. However, sometimes consistency is not always best. Every actor portraying any character described as having "wild" or "expressive" eyes exhibits the trait with the same big, crazy gaze. While funny the first time, some variety would be welcome. (An interesting footnote is that O'Neill really liked to describe his characters' eyes.)

The work is a prop master's dream, however, and Cara Francis does wonders here. My favorite pieces were the metallic shark headpieces, reminiscent of tin-foil hats; the red life raft in "Thirst" and the powder boxes disguised as books in "Servitude." The clocks on the wall, designated for six of the seven plays, are also a nice touch for setting the time of day.

A few technical fumbles were not always handled adequately at the performance I attended. During the brouhaha in "Bound East for Cardiff," the narrator's microphone went out, but the unruly accordion player did not stop jamming away. It was akin to watching the stage directions without dialogue or narration, and frankly it made even less sense.

Presented by the New York Neo-Futurists at the Kraine Theatre, 85 E. Fourth St., NYC. Sept. 12–Oct. 8. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.nynf.org.  

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