The Goodman Theatre’s Desire Under the Elms has come to the St. James Theatre. Last night was the first night of previews in this limited NYC production. Starring Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino (Suddenly Last Summer) and Pablo Schreiber (Awake and Sing) and directed by Robert Falls (Death of a Salesman, Long Days Journey into Night) this remarkable production is going to create a stir. The play itself (Eugene O’Neill) holds few surprises but packs an emotional wallop nonetheless. It has good structure and as bizarre as this sounds, is the perfect starting point for this production. What is really going on, on the very large stage, is cinematic in scope. This production is HUGE. There are hydraulics, gargantuan set pieces, farm animals and lots of smashing and hurling. It is a credit to the cast that they were never overpowered by the set and design. There is an actual house that is raised and lowered throughout the production, which often hangs over the family. Metaphor aside, I was terrified. Call me a worry wart, but I did not entirely trust the cables. This being the first night, the hydraulics were often a bit slow on the uptake, leaving yawning holes in the stage for minutes. I was concerned for the actors’ safety. All of this motion is not actually distracting; in fact it takes a relatively sedate play and brings it into the 21st century attention span demands. Music is used as a powerful device in this production. There is one scene that has no dialogue, just a riveting musical accompaniment, lending a modern cinematic touch. At one point a “violinist” comes on upstage. He is obviously “bow synching” his playing (I’m not sure why) and lends an edgy touch. The opening and closing music that accompanies father and sons as they tow rocks is pitch perfect in tone and emotion. The set is very dark, and the music works to give it a more colorful dimension. The set and costuming echoes the bleakness of the storyline, and in such a large space does not feel overly oppressive.
Although, it is clear that this production dictates the use of a large stage, the St. James is not the right venue. It is very large. Musical large. The actors are wearing body mics, although where, remains a mystery, as we saw one of the actors disrobe. The distortion is a travesty. The set is dark, and several times I could not discern who was actually speaking. The volume settings were off at times, creating a pearl crashing Singing In The Rain reality that just didn’t work. A smaller theatre would have allowed the actors to be free to unplug. The accents are a bit off as well. Mr. Dennehy was using his lovely brogue with no reference to being Irish, but Ms. Gugino seemed to struggle with a New England accent. I much prefer no accents as a rule, as so few people, save Meryl Streep, can actually master one. The acting is phenomenal, the direction perfection, and the staging out of this world. It is a dark and sad play, with very little humor. See it if you can, but not for a first date.