Los Angeles Theater Review: DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS (A Noise Within)

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by Harvey Perr on December 3, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

TWISTED LITTLE PASSIONS IN THE SUBURBS

Now that A Noise Within –  the Southern California repertory theater company dedicated to the classics – has gotten a snazzy new suburban theater in Pasadena, guess what?  They are doing the same fair-to-middling work on their new stage as they did in their old space in Glendale. I do not mean to suggest that watching their revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is akin to watching the Titanic sink, but it does raise the question of whether another stodgy, workmanlike production of a dated O’Neill play is absolutely necessary. If this reviewer was asked, he’d say, yes…if the director were to re-imagine the play and bring to it a vision that showed us why the play has survived and what relevance it continues to have today; and, yes, if it were peopled with a powerhouse cast of actors.

This revival has neither.

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill - A Noise Within – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrThe play gives us a Biblical patriarch in 76-year-old Ephraim Cabot, stern and powerful, who returns to his farm, after a long time away, with a new and comely young wife, Abbie Putnam, who, at 35, has seen this marriage as her last chance to finally get her own home. Love has not entered into the equation, at least not for Abbie. When they arrive, they find that two of Ephraim’s sons have run off to find their own fortunes in California, their share in the farm bought out by their brother, Eben, with money he has stolen from Ephraim. It doesn’t take long before Abbie and Eben are entwined in a passionate affair. Indeed, a child is born –  Eben’s –  which Ephraim is convinced is his own.

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill - A Noise Within – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrIf all this sounds as if melodrama is in the offing –  the kind that surely influenced O’Neill, since his father made a living doing just that kind of theater –  it will be revealed that what O’Neill really has in mind is Greek tragedy. Who will keep the farm? Ephraim? Eben? Abbie? There’s the melodrama. Abbie’s growing love for Eben gets so intense that when Eben suggests that he wishes the child were never born, she kills it. There’s the tragedy. Do they come together in some substantive way? Well, yes, on paper, they do, but, on stage, it demands that the audience be swept up in this triangle, as if what they are seeing might explode in their faces at any moment. There is no danger here. Without danger, there is no life.

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill - A Noise Within – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrDirector Dámaso Rodriguez, who gave us such a lyrical production last season of Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale, is not on such sure footing this time. The play’s most important events –  the killing of the child and the discovery that Ephraim’s money has been stolen –  are staged in such a casual way that they almost don’t seem to be happening at all. It is almost as if the play’s guiding principle –  Greek tragedy emerging from melodrama –  were subdued so as not to seem either melodramatic or really tragic. It plods along from moment to moment, without a dramatic arc, in search of a truthfulness it ultimately ignores.

And it has not been helped by the actors. William Dennis Hunt huffs and puffs and even jigs his way through the part of Ephraim, but, like everything else about this production, he gives the part size but little depth. Jason Dechert, a very reliable actor who has done some really excellent work in the past, seems like a mouse caught in a maze, chasing his own tail, his emotional palette reduced to monochromatic colors, his complex feelings diminished to a single note of confused torment. Monette Magrath’s Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill - A Noise Within – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrAbbie appears at first with a firm assurance of whom her character is, but her body language is very contemporary, and the carnality Abbie is capable of has finally been reduced herein to a mild sort of lust.

Endre Balogh’s music and, particularly, his fiddle-playing, is the best thing about this Desire Under the Elms. John Iacovilli’s set fills the stage, but provides little atmosphere. So, in general, it makes more sense to read the play than to see it for the first time in A Noise Within’s unfulfilled dramatization. What makes this a great play has not been remotely found. The new theater is a honey.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Desire Under the Elms
A Noise Within
scheduled to end on December 18
for tickets, visit http://www.anoisewithin.org/

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