Most theatergoers revere Eugene O’Neill because of his naturalist classics like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” This production puts O’Neill the expressionist on rare and powerful display, and boasts a riveting rendition of the title role.
O’Neill’s eight-scene parable of a misfit realizing he has no place in the world still hits like a hammer, and director Matthew Wilder adds the force to make it a sledgehammer. The class-struggle politics of the 71-year-old play have become dated almost to quaintness, like the Brooklyn slang employed by O’Neill’s anti-hero, Yank. Yet the anger of alienation embodied in that pathetic man remains as pertinent as ever.
Mario Arrambide creates the feeling that O’Neill had him in mind for the thick and menacing Yank. On stage nearly the whole time, he appropriately dominates, maintaining his intensity with a brute physicality.
Besides his imposing stockiness, Arrambide makes effective use of a primatelike stare and an especially expressive mouth while he manages the tricky feat of evoking sympathy for a man who’s unremittingly crude, bullying and bestial.
As a stoker on a steamship, Yank regards himself as top dog in his small world. Then a wealthy woman, who amuses herself doing patronizing charity work, comes down to see the crew. Shocked by Yank’s dirty, primitive appearance, she faints.
The incident unhinges him, spurring him to leave his job and go ashore to take revenge on the woman and her class. After disastrous encounters with the bourgeoisie, however, he discovers that he also doesn’t fit with the proles. Or anybody else. Called a “hairy ape,” he heads at last for the zoo — and final rejection.
Strong stuff, and Wilder pumps it up. Yank’s mates comprise a chorus of dissatisfaction. The swells on Fifth Avenue, in plastic smily masks, march like zombies in unison. The storefronts feature grotesque displays and racy visual puns. “Monkeys,” setting the zoo scene, race around on catwalks above the audience.
Nothing is subtle, a theme dramatized by David S. Thayer’s harsh, contrasting lighting and Michael Roth’s discordant music and collection of sharp sounds.
The acting is supposed to be stylized (no one should miss that point, since the stage directions are heard in a disembodied child’s voice), and most of the cast handles the task well.
Robert Brill’s set is spare yet vivid. The theater is festooned with red banners containing Marxist quotations, and the large, open stage is covered with scattered old newspapers. Rolling on and off, as needed, are the ship’s upper deck, those garish storefronts, an office for the IWW and an animal cage.
Cynthia Bolin’s apt costumes also complement the no-nonsense scheme, especially for the unspecified actor who does a fine representation of a caged ape. He wears only a simian mask.