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The Personal Equation

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by The Playwrights Theater of New York at the Provincetown Playhouse, 133 MacDougal Street, closed Aug. 19.

The Playwrights Theater of New York continues its ambitious project to stage all 49 dramas of the Eugene O'Neill canon. In this third season of O'Neill plays at the Provincetown Playhouse, "The Personal Equation" finally made its debut appearance. Written as a classroom exercise at Harvard, it had never, until now, been staged—perhaps because O'Neill himself saw it as a beginner's effort.

Nevertheless, the play is of more than mere historic interest. Despite its flaws (which include a mid-plot flip-flop, and a final scene which serves only to weaken the story), it reveals early signs of the O'Neill genius.

"Equation" is, in fact, a compelling piece. With its impassioned political stance (not to be seen in subsequent O'Neill work, which tends to focus on philosophical concerns), it is the mark of a youthful idealist. Nor do we again see such a strong, independent-minded heroine, as the women of O'Neill's later plays tend to be depicted as one-dimensional saints or whores.

Set in the world of ships and working men, "Equation" draws on realities that O'Neill knew well. Characters spring to life, and passionate conflicts ring with truth, in this story of a ship's second engineer, truly a "company man," at odds with his revolutionary son.

"Equation" received sensitive, intelligent treatment under Stephen Kennedy Murphy's direction. Despite the limits of a shoestring operation, set designer Roger Hanna recreated the horrors of a great ship's engine room, as did the actors themselves. Sweat and dirt poured from the characters as they shoveled coal. All the scenes—whether in homes or hospitals or revolutionary headquarters—played out against this backdrop.

Casting was uneven, but several performances stood out, topped by the brilliant work of Ralph Waite. With Daniel McDonald, the two played moving father-son scenes. Barbara Poitier, Kristin Taylor, Steve Brady, and Con Horgan also offered up fine work.

In all, a worthy, commendable effort.

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