Falls and Dennehy and Their Mutual Theatrical Desire

Special Features   Falls and Dennehy and Their Mutual Theatrical Desire Longtime conspirators Brian Dennehy and Robert Falls wrestle with another O'Neill classic: Desire Under the Elms.
Desire Under the Elms stars Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy.
Desire Under the Elms stars Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy. Photo by Liz Lauren

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When Robert Falls was an up-and-coming young director striving to make his name in the Chicago theatre scene, he always imagined that one day he'd find a muse who would inspire him to create his greatest work. He certainly wouldn't have guessed that the person he'd eventually call his muse, with whom he'd forge a nearly 25-year creative partnership of artistic success, would be a burly, booming-voiced Irish-American giant not unlike himself — film, TV and stage star Brian Dennehy.

"At the beginning, I think we both had similar ambitions," says Dennehy, "which was essentially to do very challenging, epic-scaled plays that aren't staged very often."

While Dennehy, now 70, wasn't the sultry muse Falls may have imagined, the director certainly has no complaints about their enduring partnership, which has resulted in landmark productions of some of the most towering, psychologically probing American dramas of the 20th century. Those successes include the Broadway transfers of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1999) and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (2003), both of which gobbled up Tony Awards (including two for Dennehy and one for Falls). The pair have blossomed into this generation's Jason Robards and Jose Quintero and are among today's foremost interpreters of the plays of O'Neill, having also staged acclaimed revivals of The Iceman Cometh, A Touch of the Poet and Hughie (which is aiming for Broadway next season).

Their latest O'Neill venture, Desire Under the Elms, is one of their most intriguing gambits. The play, set on a New England farm in the 1850s, finds Dennehy as a boorish, miserly patriarch, Ephraim Cabot, lording over his three sons with an iron fist. When Ephraim brings home a mercurial new wife, Abbie (Carla Gugino), 40 years his junior, his youngest son, Eben (Pablo Schreiber), is first repulsed and then smitten with her. When Abbie and Eben embark on a clandestine affair, their smoldering passion sparks into an inferno of deceit and desperation that threatens to consume them all. "These are three powerful human beings — all of whom are desperately trying to control not only their lives but their environment. And all of them fail spectacularly," says Dennehy. "To do this play, you have to perform very complicated acts of archaeology — deep, emotional studies of the soul."

Although the two men share many traits (both admit to being melancholy personalities), their dispositions are in some ways polar opposite. The 55-year-old Falls is an avuncular, loquacious presence, while Dennehy is more reserved and fatalistic.

Falls admits that the two men battle "over everything," and sometimes the tension in the rehearsal room can spike the mercury. "We have cleared the room going at each other sometimes. [The other actors] generally start out in horror, but end up laughing at being caught in the midst of these two dinosaurs roaring at each other."

Robert Falls
photo by Eric Y. Exit

The director likens their dynamic to that of "a dysfunctional family that argues and yells a lot and is very passionate.... No one is going to budge until one of us adequately possesses the other person with their point of view." Dennehy, who calls their association the most important one of his professional life, agrees with that notion: "We have a frank exchange of ideas.... There are times when it's turned contentious, but usually that's made the play better. We have no problem leaving the set and resuming our friendship the same as it was before. We see things much in the same way so when occasionally we don't see eye to eye, it's hardly a big deal."

Ultimately, says Falls, every argument has led to a positive result on stage. "It's always been with [the intention] of getting the best possible work out of each other. We've been as much comrades-in-arms as combatants."

Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino
Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino
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