New York City Theater
"The Hairy Ape"
Park Avenue Armory
Yellow. In the startling revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” at the Park Ave. Armory, that color permeates the audience’s bleacher seats, the programs, the scenery, costume accessories, prop lunchboxes. The rough, besmudged men who stoke coal in the bowels of whatever ship this is are not cowards, the usual meaning of the color. There’s something sickly about it as well, an apt metaphor for a work about death and transfiguration.
Whatever it might symbolize, yellow is the signature in director Robert Jones’ brilliant, production that juxtaposes an expressionistic mise-en-scène with O’Neill’s naturalistic take on the short and brutish existence of one of nature’s misfits. At home (caged? imprisoned?) in the hold of a transatlantic liner, Yank, as he’s called, lords it over his fellow stokers. Cross him and he’ll react physically. Try to reason and he closes his ears.
His confidence is upended by the visit of Mildred, a spoiled rich girl, a passenger whose father owns the liner. Demanding to see “how the other half lives and works on a ship,” the self-described social worker is taken to the stokehold. Seeing Yank, she flings “Oh, the filthy beast” at him, causing him first to bellow, later to ponder who he is. That’s a dangerous activity for a vulgar man who lives through his senses.
Having belonged to the underbelly of society, with men who are figuratively chained to their fiery work, a humiliated Yank is now untethered. Seeking revenge, he surfaces in New York where he’s confronted by jewelry and clothing stores for the rich and by the rich themselves who are so insular they react even to his taunts with a haughty “I beg your pardon.”
He tries to join the I. W. W. (International Workers of the World), the revolutionary union known as the Wobblies. An organization dedicated to peaceful change, it evicts the more ebullient Yank, thinking him a spy.
Is there no place for him?
Where he finally does find community has become one of American drama’s most powerful scenes. Yank, caught in between the hell of pure physicality and the heaven of rational thought, is not at home on earth either. It’s an untenable situation, tragic and moving.
As Yank, Bobby Cannavale is a dynamo of anger and insecurity. He roars, he strikes out, he twists himself into the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker.” Cannavale, always a physical actor, here uses his gifts to create a character disabused of his strength. Supported by a vigorous cast (including David Costabile, Becky Ann Baker, Phil Hill and Henry Stram), Cannavale plays a figure pitifully adrift in a hostile world.
As vital to the show’s success is Stewart Laing’s design in the 55,000-square-foot Armory Drill Hall. On a treadmill that snakes scenery in and out, lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin, with music and sound by Sarah Angliss, choreography by Aletta Collins and fight direction by Thomas Schall, this “Hairy Ape” is gut-wrenching.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 3, 2017