It’s doubtful we’ll see a more thrilling revival of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic 1922 play in our lifetime. Visionary director Richard Jones has taken over the vast Park Avenue Armory – all 55,000 square feet of it – for this story of “Yank”, a lowly laborer who crosses the Atlantic in the stokehold of a luxury liner and arrives in the New York of the Roaring Twenties.
Jones and his brilliant designer Stewart Laing have constructed a mammoth grandstand, painted it a screaming yellow, placed it in the center of the Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall, and surrounded it with a conveyor belt on the largest turntable ever built in a New York theater. Scene after scene (painted the same neon yellow) rotates around the audience, from the cage-like boiler room where Yank and his fellow laborers toil, to the gilded Fifth Avenue shops, and ultimately to the zoo, where Yank finds his soul mate (a huge ape) in a cage similar to the socioeconomic one that incarcerates him.
Bobby Cannavale gives a bravura performance as the doomed Yank, supported by a stellar ensemble. The stunning supersized images (choreographed by Aletta Collins) will long be remembered, as blinding as that lurid yellow representing O’Neill’s view of hell in the dehumanizing industrial age.
Director Gold has done more than strip this beloved 1944 classic bare – he’s flayed it down to the bone. Gold seems to seek for theatricality in the anti-theatrical, with virtually no set, lighting or costuming, - just a bare stage and a makeshift set of folding chairs and table. Oh yes, and the requisite set of glass animals (that you can barely see, because that scene is masked in darkness). While there are some memorable moments, this brutal approach tends to blunt the play’s poetry and exquisite delicacy.
Still, Gold’s revival elicits wonderful performances from Sally Field (Amanda Wingfield, the domineering mother), and her entrapped children Laura (an ethereal Madison Ferris) and Tom (a deeply moving Joe Mantello), who also serves as the play’s narrator. Ferris, an actress with muscular dystrophy, makes her must-see Broadway debut, giving dignity and grace to the tender words uttered by Jim, her one and only gentleman caller (the lovable Finn Wittrock): “Being different is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Miller’s intense story of two estranged brothers and their definitive life choices is set in their late father’s attic, filled with refuse from the past, including discarded furniture and painful memories. As Victor, a policeman (who sacrificed his ambitions to care for their cruel father), Mark Ruffalo gives a sensitive, nuanced performance, while the superb Tony Shalhoub creates a colorful, complex Walter, the older and more successful brother.
The surprise and unexpected delight of the production is the casting choice of Danny DeVito as the used furniture dealer who has come to give the brothers a price for their father’s estate. This diminutive actor gives a larger-than-life performance, infusing Miller’s somber play with welcome comedic relief. Meanwhile, the larger metaphor – namely, the price that the Depression exacted on the American family’s hopes and dreams – is given life, thanks to Derek McLane’s evocative attic set and Mr. Kinney’s admirable directorial restraint.
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