Two Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill – One Really Works, One Not So Much

Four time Pulitzer Prize winner, Eugene O’Neill, wrote 26 short plays and 20 full-length pieces. His iconic Long Day’s Journey Into Night, shortlisted as one of the most important plays of the 20th century, is on Broadway as I write. With Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, O’Neill is said to have introduced dramatic realism into American Theater.

The playwright, raised in a touring theater family, held a wide variety of itinerant jobs before he became an author. He was a depressive, an alcoholic, suffered from tuberculosis, and attempted suicide. It’s therefore something of a revelation to watch the second and better of these two plays, Now I Ask You (1916), which sounds for all the world like it might have been written by George Bernard Shaw.

Terrell Wheeler and Emily Bennett

Terrell Wheeler and Emily Bennett

In this satire – yes, O’Neill wrote satire! – Lucy Ashleigh (Emily Bennett) is a pampered, upper class, young woman who immerses herself in every ideological, artistic, Bohemian philosophy that comes along with the swooning fervor of Sarah Bernhardt in high dudgeon. The night before her wedding to straight arrow Tom Drayton (Terrell Wheeler), she calls off the ceremony. Marriage, she declares, is “the meanest form of slavery.” Only free love will allow Lucy’s spirit to expand and blossom.

Her conservative father, Richard Ashleigh (David Murray Jaffe), is apoplectic; her fiancé understandably distressed. Wise and wily mother Mary (Kim Yancey-Moore), however, takes this latest obsession in stride and manages to turn the situation around by convincing Lucy to “sacrifice herself” so that Tom won’t face snubs, to marry him but with their own secret, independence-based contract. Taking Tom aside she suggests he neither discourage nor obviously tolerate Lucy, but let her grow out of each new fad in its own time. He agrees.

Kim Yancey-Moore and Emily Bennett

Kim Yancey-Moore and Emily Bennett

Lucy’s contract sounds contemporary and fair, though it includes foregoing children in order to help those less fortunate and both partners’ being able to take additional lovers. Tom bites his tongue assuming things will change. They marry. We next meet in the Drayton home three weeks later. (Mama is visiting.) The new bride, at first enthusiastic, is bored with the country “… sigh… Nature is making a vulgar display of sun…”

Into her restless orbit comes flamboyant, romantic poet Gabriel Adams (Eric R. Williams) who’s living with her friend, free thinking painter, Leonora Barnes (Dylan Brown). Think Bloomsbury Group to picture both. Gabriel is everywhere Tom turns. What can a loving husband do not to throw oil on the fire? Lucy’s mother has a plan…which almost, but not quite backfires. The well acted and directed play is full of innuendo and wit.

Dylan Brown and Eric R. Williams

Dylan Brown and Eric R. Williams

Of special note: Emily Bennett’s Lucy poses like an Edward Gorey character in pastels. Her obtuse, self serving behavior remains innocent in the actress’s capable hands. We believe she believes. It’s difficult to walk this line without slipping into parody. Bennett is skilled and appealing. Here, a palpably light spirit.

Kim Yancy-Moore (Mary Ashleigh) is a pleasure to watch observing and subtly reacting to what goes on around her. She lets us see her character think; laughs credibly, speaks with measured consideration, and moves with good breeding. The actress is fully present even when silent. Her comic timing is pristine.

Eric R. Williams (Gabriel Adams) creates the kind of egotistical artist who perpetually gets away with things by attractive pandering. “I’m used to suffering, but you, you must not disturb your fine, inner spiritual nature!” Williams’ slow broadening of Adams’ increasingly apparent playacting works well.

Terrell Wheeler (Tom Drayton) has the ballast role here. The actor seems sincere and authentic without seeming too cliché. When he finally has the opportunity to display humor, he proves himself able.

With a three sided audience, Direction might be a challenge, but Alex Roe keeps his cast logically moving to give everyone ample view while always serving the play. Multiple entrance and exit options are used to great advantage. Characters who are meant to overplay do so with finesse, only a couple less consistently than the others. The act/react ratio couldn’t be better. Physical acting is as specific as costuming.

Erin Beirnard and Kelly King

Kelly King and Erin Beirnard

The evening’s first play, Recklessness (1913) teeters at the brink of melodrama: Mildred Baldwin (Erin Beirnard), much younger wife of wealthy, traveling businessman Arthur (Kelly King) has an affair and falls in love with her chauffer, Fred (Jeremy Russial) while her husband’s away. Housemaid Gene (Eden Epstein), who was thrown over for Mildred, stalks the couple and reveals their secret to her employer. Horrible consequences are engineered as if by Machiavelli (or Rod Serling).

The only actor on the stage who fully holds his own is Kelly King who presents pompous, upper crust Arthur with imperious ease and fury. Only a moment of physical violence he shares with Epstein reads false. (Fight Choreography- John Long)

Kelly King and Eden Epstein

Kelly King and Eden Epstein

Eden Epstein begins well but falters as if unsure of Gene’s feelings when confronting Mr. Baldwin.

Minimal Sets also by Alex Roe are period accurate, utilitarian and sufficiently evocative. The appearance of a stairway is a surprise. Doors and windows are cleverly mobilized.

Sidney Fortner’s Costume Design is as good as anything one sees with considerably larger budgets. Every look not only suits, but is beautifully tailored. Bohemian characters are particularly well imagined as is a simply splendid negligee. Only Leonora’s black shoes with a white dress are – wrong.

This company is new to me and one clearly worth awareness.

Photos by Svetlana Didorenko
Opening: Terrell Wheeler, Kim Yancey-Moore, Dylan Brown

Metropolitan Playhouse presents
O’Neill (Unexpected): Two Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill:
Recklessness (1913) and Now I Ask You (1916)
Metropolitan Playhouse
220 East 4th Street
Through June 26, 2016

About Alix Cohen (1755 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.