×

Falls, Dennehy prosper at Goodman

'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.

Popular on Variety

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.”

More Legit

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Closing in March After Box Office Struggles

    “The Inheritance,” a sprawling and ambitious epic that grappled with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, will close on March 15. The two-part play has struggled mightily at the box office despite receiving strong reviews. Last week, it grossed $345,984, or 52% of its capacity, a dispiriting number for a show that was reported to [...]

  • MCC theater presents 'Alice By Heart'

    Steven Sater on Adapting 'Alice by Heart' From a Musical to a Book

    When producers approached lyricist Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”) to adapt Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into a musical, his initial reaction was to recoil. His initial thought was that the book didn’t have a beginning, middle and an ending. But Sater pulled it off with his production of “Alice By Heart.” After an off-Broadway [...]

  • The Lehman Trilogy review

    Sam Mendes' 'Lehman Trilogy' Kicks off Ahmanson's New Season

    Sam Mendes’ “The Lehman Trilogy,” which took London’s West End by storm will be part of the Ahmanson’s lineup for the 2020-21 season. It will be joined by Broadway hits “Hadestown” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Artistic director Michael Ritchie announced the season that will also feature four fan favorites and another production to be [...]

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content