Playwrights Theatre of New York has made a significant historical statement with the premiere of “Bread and Butter,” the first full-length play that Eugene O’Neill wrote. The notable oddity, which was written in 1914 when the dramatist was only 26 years old, is a crudely structured and often unwieldy play. Despite its abundance of over-wrought language and melodramatic devices, however, there are a few genuine moments of high voltage drama, heightened here by two illuminating performances.
Autobiographical in tone, with strands of family life that surface frequently in the O’Neill canon, the drama focuses upon a young Princeton grad, a painter who refuses his father’s plea to study law and retreats to the Bohemian city life of the struggling artist. John Brown (Kristoffer Polaha) is encouraged by a kindly art teacher (Salem Ludwig) to pursue his dreams and nurture a promising talent.
When his son fails to establish a professional career in art after one year, the father withdraws financial support for his studies. Disillusioned, Brown observes the edging success of his creative friends and opts to return to a small New England community, marry Maude (Paulette O’Dow), the daughter of a prosperous businessman, and begin a mundane existence as a shopkeeper.
But John — who is badgered by his successful brother, Harry (Chris Brady), a young politico running for town mayor, and who sours on his marriage to the tempestuous, nagging Maude — soon finds solace in whiskey and womanizing.
“Everything about my life is unbearable,” the failed artist laments, and the familiar demons of an O’Neill terrain appear with flights of cringing despair, agony and rage.
O’Neill had destroyed his only copy of this play — which was not authorized for production — but, fortunately, a copyright had been taken out on it and the surviving text had been filed with the Library of Congress. In respect to the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, artistic director Stephen Kennedy Murphy and the Playwrights Theatre — who plan to present all 49 O’Neill plays within the next decade — have staged “Bread and Butter” as a rehearsal and the original rambling and lengthy four-acter has been pruned to an acceptable running time.
With the exception of a few scattered stools on a bare stage, there is no set , props nor costumes. The actors appear in casual everyday dress, creating a varied canvas of character models which O’Neill would develop nearly 15 years later, following his initial full-fledged triumph in 1929 with “Beyond the Horizon,” the first of his three Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas.
The acting drifts from uncomfortably tentative and sloppy to genuinely electric tandem turns by Polaha and O’Dow. As the doomed hero, Polaha captures the brooding despair and required intensity. The assured young actor, who appeared last month as the playwright in the experimental “Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Revue,” invests his character with lanky fervor, and the play with the much needed energy.
The raven-haired O’Dow makes a keen transformation from a fetching small town tease to a shrewish vixen. Together, Polaha and O’Dow weld the tension and tragedy of the long and turbulent final scene with stark numbing depth and insight.