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|A CurtainUp Review
Playwrights Theater Festival of O'Neill II
"Bound East for Cardiff,""Abortion" and "The Movie Man"
By Les Gutman
This festival commenced last year, to commenorate the re-opening of Provincetown Playhouse by producing (in order) the full canon of Eugene O'Neill's plays (49 in total). Last season saw six one acts and his first full length play, Bread and Butter. (None of these were considered stageworthy by O'Neill.) This season brings works 8-13, which completes the third year of O'Neill's writing, 1915. See schedule below for more details.
This is an opportunity not only to see the early work of America's only nobel laureate playwright, but also the space in which he worked. O'Neill's early career is inextricably connected to Provincetown Playhouse, which moved into this space in 1918. It was here that he gained fame (most notably with The Emperor Jones, 1920, his first play to move uptown). This theater introduced New York to the early work of many other now-known playwrights, as well as to a young actress named Bette Davis. ("I recall [little] of that first performance now except the last scene," she relates in her autobiography."Suddenly there was a clap of thunder and a frightening rumble that vibrated throughout the building. I thought the rain had casued the roof to cave in. It was the applause. It was the applause.") There's a nice exhibition about the theater's history, although, sadly, NYU's renovation a couple of years ago is a restorationist's nightmare.
The three plays in the first installment of this year's festival are generally treated as unworthy of production. In fact, only B"ound for Cardiff" was staged during O'Neill's lifetime. It was his first produced play, and the first in his series of "sea plays." (The other two were apparently only produced once, in 1959.) They all bear unmistakable markings from his own life: an unsuccessful year at Princeton, a marriage from which he had escaped before the child it produced was born, a bout of tuberculosis from which he could have easily died, two years as a sailor, an attempted suicide.
"Cardiff" is not an insubstantial play, but it is more interesting for how it informs our understanding of later plays than for what it has to say or how it says it. A ship is at sea and a sick sailor, Yank, is dying. As other sailors react, we get a glimpse at their life. "The Movie Man" is, surprising, a comedy and, even more surprisingly, one that gets its humor from very politically-incorrect stereotypes of the denizens of its Northern Mexico setting. This one is best left produced only once or twice a century, for academic purposes like those that justify it here.
The stunning surprise is "Abortion," an emotional roller coaster of a play that in less time than any single act of A Long Day's Journey Into Night demonstates that O'Neill already had his hand on the devastating playwriting throttle that served him, and his audiences, so well. It takes place on the campus of an unnamed eastern university (based, no doubt, on Princeton) and focuses on the star of the baseball team, Jack Townsend. Amidst cheers from his classmates, visiting family and girlfriend, he must confront the consequences of a tryst with a "townie"-- a local girl from the other side of the tracks. Her tubercular brother intrudes on the festivities to tell Jack that the abortion for which he, with his father's money, paid, has resulted in the girl's death. When it becomes clear money will not buy him out of this jam, Jack pulls the only other trigger at his disposal. Kristoffer Polaha, a recent NYU graduate, is frighteningly good.
Performances are workshop stagings (no sets or costumes). Each evening performance in this year's festival is preceded (at 7:30 PM) by a ragtime review, highlighting poetry and songs, many of which O'Neill employed in his productions. Tickets are $12 or less, and the theater is located at 133 MacDougal Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets and just to the southwest of Washington Square..
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