PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Desire Under the Elms — Love on the Rocks

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Desire Under the Elms — Love on the Rocks
"It's a play about a set," observed one first-nighter April 27, exiting the St. James after the third Broadway arrival of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms.
Desire Under the Elms stars Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schrieber bow; guests Brian Cox, Jennifer Westfeldt and Michael Shannon
Desire Under the Elms stars Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schrieber bow; guests Brian Cox, Jennifer Westfeldt and Michael Shannon Photo by Aubrey Reuben

She's not far off the mark, either. Your first gander at the grandeur of Walt Spangler's spectacular set bodes epic-size tragedy ahead: A two-story New England house sits nestled in a massive rock quarry where "tilling the soil," in the farmer sense, here is symbolically interpreted by hauling rocks and boulders from one side of the stage to the other.

The beauty of the house is it moves up and down, like Norma Desmond's manse, so as not to obscure views of young lovers at steamy play. At one point, they even rendezvous in the parlor inside the house, which is suspended in the air by huge ropes, swaying gently from their movements. Talk about tension-making! But, for the most part, there is a lot of lust under the house in this Desire Under the Elms. The director is Robert Falls.

This being O'Neill, where nothing is simple, the young lovers are in the same family, one degree of separation from Oedipus. Having driven two good wives to early graves, Ephraim Cabot (Brian Dennehy) returns after two months away from his farm with Wife No. 3, Abbie Putnam (Carla Gugino), a land-hungry hussy of thirtysomething anxious to inspect "my house." The two eldest of Cabot's wannabe heirs — Simeon (David Stewart Sherman) and Peter (Boris McGiver) — see the writing on the wall and opt to pan for gold in California rather than roll any more boulders.

Eben Cabot (Pablo Schreiber), their young stepbrother, stays on, hoping to get his rightful inheritance from the evil (or at least ambitious) stepmother. Their arm-wrestling over the property turns amorous, then adulterous, finally murderously dark while teetering tensely high over their heads is the farm they are fighting over.

"No, it doesn't make me nervous," Schreiber calmly relayed to the press when cast and crew reconvened after the show for wine and hors d'oeuvres at the Redeye Grill. "Everybody asks, 'Are you nervous when you're under the house?' But I'm not." Nor is he remotely phased by the scene inside the house floating in air — the erotic parlor scene. "Nervousness is good," he advanced. "I think putting the audience on edge would be good. The biggest thing we wanted to get, I think, in putting it 17 feet above the ground and putting it in the house up there is that that scene — of all the scenes in the play — needs to be heightened. There needs to be a spiritual aspect to that scene. You need to have a sense of the ghost of the mom, and I think by pulling it up into the air, having it suspended, having a little bit of a wave of the house — I think it throws it into an other-worldly, ethereal thing. That's what we're hoping."

Earlier on opening day, Schreiber got the news that he was up for Drama Desk honors for a performance he gave last year Off-Broadway in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty. (The part is currently being played two Broadway blocks away at the Lyceum by Stephen Pasquale.) "It's a little bizarre," Schreiber admitted. "That was about a year ago, and I'm doing this now, but it's always nice to be singled out."

Switching from LaBute to O'Neill, he said, "was a no-brainer for me. I really love this show. I really love the challenge of doing it, and I had already done that show Off-Broadway. For me, as an artist, I always want to try and experience as much as I can.

"I really like the challenge of playing Eben Cabot, which is to say that to play this character is to play a guy who goes from zero to one hundred in about half a second. He goes from hate to love, or from love to hate, in the time that you can snap your fingers, and to find access to those two competing desires is an epic challenge."

When his stepbrothers leave home, they leave for good, but the two actors playing those roles reappear in assorted disguises and wordless roles. McGiver was slated to return at the end [to play a lawman], "but there was too little time between the sheriff's scene and the curtain call for me to get back into the costume that people were supposed to recognize me by so they used one of the understudies [Michael Laurence]."

[flipbook] But McGiver and Sherman make their stage time count (and pay dividends) in the play's prologue, which, invented wholly for this production, was plainly inspired by the spartan set and hammered home by Richard Woodbury's hard-driving original music and sound design. You see these two bruisers using every ounce of their energy lugging gigantic stones across the stage. Then they string up a slaughtered hog and disembowel him. Farm life, you quickly gather, is a primitive, mean existence.

"Walt Spangler, the set designer, had this epiphany and just thought, 'Why not?'" said McGiver. "It works, and I cannot tell you why or how other than, as an actor, being on stage on this set really informs me what I am supposed to do and to be."

So where are the elms? Such vegetation gives no green. McGiver said, "I plead the fifth on that."

Sherman had no answer for it either. "You have to let your imagination go," he said.

This is Sherman's second O'Neill play — he poured drinks at Studio 54 for Gabriel Byrne in A Touch of the Poet — but the excruciatingly presented curtain-raiser here "is the hardest work I've ever done in my life as an actor. I can tell you right now that opening process — doing that prologue — was some of the most exciting and exhausting work ever. We found it, created it. 'What works here?' ‘What doesn't?'"

Aside from cramps and cardiacs, is there a fear of swine flu? "You know what? The pig that we gut on stage protects us. I just have a feeling that it's protecting us."

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Dennehy arrived at the party wearing the baseball cap he wore his last time on Broadway (to hide the bald head he shaved for Inherit the Wind). His hair has made a remarkable comeback, thanks, he said, to a wig that gives him a flowing mane. He seems to have been in Mean School in the interim and graduated with dishonors. The innate intelligence and compassion he has as a human being has been successfully snuffed out, and a snarling, mean-spirited patriarch has emerged — a transformation he credited to his director, who previously steered him through Death of a Salesman and O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night to Tony Awards.

"That was Bob," Dennehy admitted. "Bob pushed me in that direction, and he was right to do that. He kept saying, 'No, you can't be a charming Irishman this time around. You have to go and be a bastard.' And he was right. It worked better."

In his view, the awful Ephraim Cabot "is a simple, direct, powerful, single-minded character. He has a very weird relationship with God that he creates himself. It's fun to play. I'm still finding it out, but we're getting closer. It's a work in progress."

Falls, who is artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, mounted this production there in January of this year and nurtured it lovingly, with an eye down the road for Broadway. "It has grown," he said. "What's great about O'Neill is it's so challenging it only gets better the more you work on it. He's the Everest of American playwriting.

"It's hard to get it right the first time. You gotta keep working on it and working on it and working on it. So, this has been a thrill to have a second chance with Broadway. We had such a natural progression. We were able to just kinda stay in rehearsal virtually the whole time. I think it's a deeper, richer, stronger production now." When Desire Under the Elms bowed on Broadway in 1924 with Walter Huston, Mary Morris and Charles Ellis, it had a cast of 20 — and one less than that when it was revived in 1952 with Karl Malden, Carol Stone and Douglas Watson.

Falls makes do with a quarter of that — and then mostly just focuses on the central triangle as it spins into darkness and tragedy. "Well, it wasn't that hard to cut the cast. There are about a dozen roles that only appear for one scene — the party scene. That was just O'Neill's attempt to make a Greek tragedy with a chorus."

The action has been streamlined into 100 heavy-duty minutes. Given how sexually charged the proceedings get, you could even say it was steamlined. "It does start with casting two of the sexiest human beings on earth," Falls crowed. "They're such passionate performers and such consummate professionals, but we did a lot of work on those scenes. They're tricky, very hard. They require absolute commitment from the actors, absolute passion, absolute truth, and I was lucky to have Pablo and Carla and, of course, Brian, who were committed to the same things I was trying to get at."

So where are the elms? "They're in the title. If you want elms, go to the park."

Gugino made a fashionably late Star entrance in spectacular scarlet. "Dressed down again," groused Dennehy mockingly as he took his place beside her for a photo op.

She very much looked the movie star, which she is, but New York theatre folk know her as the woman who would be Marilyn (in the last revival of After the Fall) and has no hesitation about doing a role previously conceded to Elizabeth Taylor (Suddenly, Last Summer) and, now, Sophia Loren (Desire Under the Elms).

As properties go, this new addition to her resume has maximum sex-pot potential, which she thoroughly realizes. The chemistry between her and Schreiber boils and bubbles accordingly. "There aren't that many plays that are, actually, genuinely sexy," she conceded. "It's a very tricky thing to pull off on stage so I'm glad that we did."

She had praise for both leading men. "They're phenomenal. They're both such generous actors and such beautiful human beings, and I love them as friends. To get on stage every night with those guys — well, I'm the luckiest girl in the world."

So where are the elms? "You gotta talk to Bob Falls about that. I got nothing to do with that. I think he felt like he wanted to do something different that sorta represented something else, like their loneliness and their hardness."

Ye Old Vic's Kevin Spacey, still in town after launching his import The Norman Conquests at Circle in the Square, invaded the press area to visit with the stars. You'd think with his infinity and special Broadway history for O'Neill (Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten) that he might have some interesting observations about the evening, but, when approached, he barked, "No!"

Other first-nighters included Milena Govich of "Law and Order," Naomi Watts, book writer Joseph Stein and novelist son Harry Stein, Impressionism's Andre DeShields and Marsha Mason, singer Moby, comedian Robert Klein (prepping an HBO special for December), Peter Ackerman, Passing Strange's Chad Goodridge, God of Carnage's Hope Davis, Bob Balaban, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, Les Liaisons Dangereuse twosome Mamie Gummer and Benjamin Walker, Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson with Elizabeth Ashley, Cry-Baby's Christopher Hanke and Elizabeth Stanley, Variety's Robert Hofler, Andrew McCarthy, Eve Best, Jim Dale, West Side Story's Michael Mastro, director Michael Mayer (currently juggling two shows: Sherie Rene Scott's Everyday Rapture at Second Stage and Theresa Rebeck's Our House at Playwrights Horizons), Marian Seldes, recent Oscar contender Michael Shannon (for "Revolutionary Road"), Roger Rees, Richard Thomas (La Jolla-bound the first week in June to redo Terrence McNally's new Unusual Acts of Devotion, this time with Harriet Harris and Doris Roberts), Stephanie March, actress-producer Tamara Tunie, Zeljko Ivanek, Julia Stiles, Jen Westfeldt, Scott Cohen, Brian Cox, The Public's Oskar Eustis, Matthew Modine (who hopes to come to Broadway next season as Atticus Finch, under the auspices of Jeffrey Richards), Kevin Geer, Peter Jacobson of "House," Simon Jones and Susan Louise O'Connor of Blithe Spirit and Tom Hulce.

Bruce Weber, who used to cover the rialto for The New York Times and now does the obits (no special meaning in that — it just is), was present. He has parlayed a pastime into a potential bestseller, published last month by Scribner's: "A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires." Eric Bogosian is doing a May 5 reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble of "Perforated Heart," his new novel from Simon & Schuster. Mrs. Bogosian — director Jo Bonney — is workshopping at The Public a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks called Father Comes Home From the War.

Producer David Richenthal, who has a habit of bringing Pulitzer Prize plays to Broadway (The Kentucky Cycle, The Young Man from Atlanta, I Am My Own Wife), said he will be bringing Finian's Rainbow back for a fourth Broadway visit and parking it at the St. James after Desire Under the Elms. In September, he thought — "but it depends on how long a run these nice people have, but, whenever they get out, I'm going in. It'll be some of the same Encores! cast. We're going to do a whole Broadway production of it. It's not going to be a concert. We're building a whole set."

Spying director Falls idle after his huddle with his agent, George Lane, I sidled up to him and asked what was next on his agenda. "I'm actually doing King Lear with Stacy Keach at the Shakespeare Theatre," he replied. "I did it three years ago in Chicago, and we're going to do it again in Washington." Then I broached the dreaded subject of elms rather timorously and asked if he was entertaining any questions about that.

"What do you want to ask?" he said, his eyes narrowing. The five little words that came out of my mouth set off a flurry of F-words — like two per sentence for five sentences. When he calmed down to just one per sentence, he seemed to be saying, "It seems to me to be the height of cretinism to ask where are the frigging elms. You're not the first to do it, Harry. But I turn my venom on everyone who asks."

CBS's wit-in-residence Mo Rocca leveled in with his verdict. "I liked it very much," he assessed. "It made me feel so much better about my own family. It's Godot Meets The Postman Always Rings Twice, with the threat of swine flu looming throughout."

When I mentioned I thought of swine flu when I was getting a bronchial blasting from the woman behind me at the theatre, Rocca was consoling: "She just had TB. She thought she was at Long Day's Journey Into Night. She had consumption."

The cast of <I>Desire Under the Elms</I> take their opening night bow.
The cast of Desire Under the Elms take their opening night bow.
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