'Desire Under the Elms' is pair's fifth O'Neill play

“The thing with O’Neill,” says Brian Dennehy, “is that nothing’s easy.”

The actor, whose CV includes productions of Eugene O’Neill plays including “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” is obviously enjoying the hard labor, even if it involves a degree of psychic suffering.

He’s two and a half weeks into rehearsing “Desire Under the Elms,” in which he’ll play patriarch Ephraim Cabot, who brings home young wife Abby (Carla Gugino), only to see her fall in love with his son Eben (Pablo Schreiber). The production starts perfs Jan. 21 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

“There are two great relationships in this play,” Dennehy says. “The one between Eben and Abby, and the one between Ephraim and his God.”

There’s another significant relationship at work in the production itself — the one between Dennehy and the show’s director, Robert Falls. “Elms” marks the seventh play on which the two have collaborated; of those, this is the fifth written by O’Neill.

At the Goodman, where Falls is artistic director, they’ve paired on “Iceman” (1990), “A Touch of the Poet” (1996), “Long Day’s Journey” (2002) and “Hughie” (2004). All of the productions have been well received, and many restaged, sometimes multiple times. Dennehy won the Tony for “Long Day’s Journey,” which followed up on his Tony-winning turn in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” also directed by Falls.

It’s hard to think of a director-star-playwright combo in America that’s lasted quite as long and been as aesthetically prosperous.

The names that come most immediately to mind are director Jose Quintero, actors Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst — and O’Neill again.

“British actors can grow up doing Shakespeare,” says Falls, “playing Hamlet at 30, the Scottish king at 40, Coriolanus at 50, Prospero at 60 and Lear at 70. O’Neill is the only American writer you can even begin to do that with. Robards moved up into different roles as he grew older. I think Brian has become the heir to that.”

Falls imagines that Dennehy, who just turned 70, might play Chris Christopherson in “Anna Christie” in the future. And the director would love to revisit “Iceman” with Dennehy playing Larry Slade, a part previously assayed by Donald Moffat and James Cromwell, and with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Hickey.

From Dennehy’s perspective, the collaboration has worked because he and Falls don’t shy away from a good artistic brawl.

“We respect each other, we care about each other, but we struggle and pretty much don’t apologize for it,” says Dennehy. “You have to be careful sometimes with the fight, because it can be alarming to some of the other people who aren’t used to the kind of slugfest that goes on with people who’ve been longtime collaborators.”

“The important thing,” he adds, “is that the fighting is always about what O’Neill was getting at. The genius of O’Neill is that he writes in layers — they aren’t happy accidents, which they may be with some playwrights, who may allow you to scoot down this alleyway that the writer never intended. Not with O’Neill. Everything has been thought out and has to be revealed by the actor in order for it to work.”

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