Desire Under the Elms, With Dennehy, Gugino and Schreiber, Opens on Broadway

By Kenneth Jones
27 Apr 2009

Desire Under the Elms stars Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy.
Desire Under the Elms stars Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy.
Photo by Liz Lauren

The Goodman Theatre's acclaimed new production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, the 1924 tale of lust, promises, property and familial betrayal, opens at Broadway's St. James Theatre April 27 after previews from April 14.

Tony Award-winning director Robert Falls and his Chicago cast of five — including two-time Tony Award winner Brian Dennehy, stage and screen star Carla Gugino and Tony nominee Pablo Schreiber — reunite for this new limited run of the 100-minute staging that was critically acclaimed earlier this year at the Goodman, the Tony Award-winning resident theatre in the Windy City.

The 1850-set naturalistic play shocked audiences when it first appeared on Broadway more than 80 years ago. A love triangle between an aging farmer, Ephraim Cabot (Dennehy), his young wife, Abbie (Gugino), and his son, Eben (Pablo Schreiber), does not end happily. There are no arching, verdant elm trees in this production; it's literally a world of New England rock (created by scenic designer Walt Spangler, whose landscape is surreal and expressionistic) suggesting that family conflict is as implacable and timeless as the earth we walk on. For all the talk about land being important to the play's characters, the physical territory of Falls' production is joyless, unforgiving and seemingly fallow.

In the background of the rocky farm set, boulders hang by ropes — dangling like anchors that never touch the seabed — behind mammoth translucent walls. The farmhouse itself has been wrapped in stage ropes and hoisted toward the fly space, where it dangles and creaks, like something held up at a cattle auction.

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Falls' Goodman (and Broadway) cast also includes Boris McGiver ("The Wire") and Daniel Stewart Sherman (Broadway's Cyrano de Bergerac), playing Eben's sweaty half-brothers.

The Broadway staging is produced by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Steve Traxler, Bat-Barry Productions, Ronald Frankel, Norton Herrick, Judith Resnick, Daryl Roth, The Weinstein Company, Scott Delman/Alan D. Marks, Mort Swinsky/Michael Fuchs/Cindy & Jay Gutterman, Mark Johannes & Amy Danis/Jack Thomas Morris Berchard/Eric Falkenstein in association with Terri & Timothy Childs, Jam Theatricals, Jamie deRoy and Jujamcyn Theaters.

Performances continue to July 5.

The production understudies are Christian Conn (Eben), John Henry Cox (Ephraim), Kelly Hutchinson (Abbie), Michael Laurence (Simeon/Peter).

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Falls' visceral new production of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms officially opened in Chicago Jan. 26. The director cut ten characters out of the play, and streamlined it to 100 minutes, focusing on the turbulent family drama at the core.

He told Playbill.com Feb. 19 that the St. James is known as a large musical house but that the big themes of the script and stark production will fit well in the space.

"It's an amazing key play that I think has been wildly overlooked," Falls told Playbill.com Feb. 19. "It's had more productions in Chicago than it has in New York. It's a remarkable American play about land, possession, ownership — ownership of land and of people…it's O'Neill's turning-point play where he really found his voice."

Falls chose to cut the Greek chorus-like townspeople from the script. "I don't think it was particularly successful," the director said, adding that the major Greek-drama passions, however, remain intact.

For Desire, Falls reassembled the design team from his 2006 critical and popular hit, King Lear, including Walt Spangler (set design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), Michael Philippi (lighting design) and Richard Woodbury (original music and sound design). Their work will be seen on Broadway.

Desire began previews Jan. 17 in the Goodman's 856-seat Albert Ivar Theatre. During previews the run was extended by one week to March 1, owing to buzz and ticket sales. Gugino left the production Feb. 17 to address film publicity commitments (she's in the features "Watchmen" and "Race to Witch Mountain" in the coming weeks). Amy J. Carle played the role til March 1.

Falls previously stated, "Desire Under the Elms is iconic. A highly passionate, shocking drama of three people tangled in lust and loathing, it's the first great tragedy from the writer who I consider to be the American Shakespeare — our country's greatest and most influential playwright. It was necessary for me to reinterpret this play with my longtime collaborator Brian Dennehy — who is considered by many to be one of the great O'Neill interpreters in the world — with two actors of remarkable depth and substance, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber, to complete the devastating love triangle."

Desire Under the Elms is performed in one act with no intermission. The production contains nudity.

According to Goodman notes, "Master American playwright Eugene O'Neill conceived Desire Under the Elms as he slept one night, imbuing it with the emotional pitch of a fever dream. Ephraim Cabot returns to his remote New England farmhouse with his third wife — the alluring, headstrong young Abbie — launching his three grown sons into a bitter fight for their inheritance. When Ephraim's youngest son sets his sights on Abbie, the resulting tempest brings tragic consequences."

Robert Falls
photo by Eric Y. Exit
O'Neill is considered one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century, and the father of modern America drama. His work over the years embraced both expressionism and naturalism as he charted the lives of dysfunctional family members and society outsiders whose yearnings reflected universal human experiences. His plaudits include four Pulitzer Prizes in Drama — more than any other playwright to date — and the Nobel Prize in Literature. His plays include Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, The Iceman Cometh, Ah, Wilderness!, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Brian Dennehy (Ephraim Cabot) returns to the Goodman, where his credits include Hughie (2004, also at Trinity Repertory Company and Long Wharf Theatre), Long Day's Journey Into Night (2002), Death of a Salesman (1998), A Touch of the Poet (1996), The Iceman Cometh (1992, also at Abbey Theatre, Dublin) and Galileo (1986). His Broadway credits include Inherit the Wind (2007), Long Day's Journey Into Night (Tony Award for Best Actor 2003), Death of a Salesman (Tony Award for Best Actor 1999) and Translations (1995).

Carla Gugino (Abbie Putnam) made her Broadway debut in Roundabout Theatre Company's 2004 revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, for which she received an Outer Critic's Circle Award nomination and a Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut for her role as Maggie. She followed that with her acclaimed portrayal of Catherine Holly in the Tennessee William's classic Suddenly Last Summer, also for Roundabout. Film credits include "American Gangster," "Righteous Kill," "The Lookout," the "Spy Kids" Trilogy and "Sin City," among others.

Pablo Schreiber (Eben Cabot) received a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut in Awake and Sing! Other theatre credits include Reasons To Be Pretty at MCC Theatre; Dying City at Lincoln Center Theater; Mr. Marmalade at Roundabout Theatre Company; Manuscript at Daryl Roth Theatre; Sin: A Cardinal Deposed at The New Group; and more.

Boris McGiver (Peter Cabot) appeared in Off-Broadway's The Overwhelming at Roundabout Theatre Company; nine Shakespeare productions with Vanessa Redgrave, Mark Wing-Davey, Steven Berkoff, Brian Kulick and many others at The Public Theater; Cymbeline with Bartlett Sher and Andorra with Liviu Ciulei at Theatre for a New Audience; Book of Days at Signature Theatre, and more.

Daniel Stewart Sherman (Simeon Cabot) appeared on Broadway in Cyrano de Bergerac, A Touch of the Poet, Henry IV and The Full Monty.

The St. James is 246 West 44th Street. The Desire performance schedule is Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday & Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.

Tickets are $32-$117. For information, contact Telecharge.com at (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or visit desireonbroadway.com.