Two recent productions in New York City, The Wooster Group/New York City Players' Early Plays and The Pearl Theatre Company's A Moon for the Misbegotten not only presented works from opposite ends of O'Neill's career but also demonstrated widely divergent approaches to staging his works. Early Plays, a production of three of O'Neill's S.S. Glencairn one-acts—Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home—had an all-star cast of downtown theater artists, including actors from The Wooster Group, New York City Players, and Elevator Repair Service. But the real star of this refreshing production was the text itself thanks to Richard Maxwell's deadpan directorial style that privileged O'Neill's words over actors' delivery. Meanwhile, The Pearl's A Moon for the Misbegotten, with one key exception, embraced quick-paced and often slapstick physicality. [End Page 293] While director J. R. Sullivan's pacing worked in the first half of the play, it became counterproductive as the play moved toward tragic redemption.
Though many Wooster Group mainstays acted in Early Plays, including founding member Kate Valk (as Bella, Meg, and Kate), the show was more a product of New York City Players' Richard Maxwell, who is known for productions of plays like House and Henry IV, Part One, in which characters speak and, to a lesser extent, react in a monotone, affectless fashion. In Early Plays, whether the sailors are fighting over girls in Moon of the Caribbees or gasping their last breath in Bound East for Cardiff, they say their lines in a disaffected, emotionless way that at once defamiliarizes the actors' performances and focuses the production on the text. The unnaturalness of the speech spoken by the actors makes their actions incongruous with their words and disrupts emotional identification between the characters.
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Another way that this defamiliarization was evident was with the dialect in O'Neill's plays, which was intended to reflect the accents of the various nationalities present on the S.S. Glencairn. However, the dialects produced by the actors in Early Plays are without both accent and affect (which is, of course, an affect). Instead they focus entirely on the dialect as written on the [End Page 294] page and do not attempt to inflect the words with an understanding of the accent. For example, Bobby McElver playing Olson, the Swedish character in The Long Voyage Home, made no effort at authentic Swedish accent but instead spoke in a droll, awkward manner, placing emphasis on the individual sounds of the letters as written in the text. Because of the distancing effect, I did not feel sad when Yank died. The production allowed the audience to see through it to the page itself in a self-conscious and self-critical presentation of the text that pointed out, rather than produced, the emotional spark and connection for which drama so often strives.
At first glance, one could interpret Maxwell's presentation of the text as unfriendly toward O'Neill since it represents the written dialect as inartistic and stilted. But Maxwell's interpretation sheds new light on the plays in regards to O'Neill's notorious skepticism about the way that production could potentially misinterpret and ultimately not live up to the promise of his written work. O'Neill wrote, "The play, as written, is the thing, and not the way the actors garble it with their almost-always-alien-personalities." O'Neill may very well have hated this production because it did not imbue characterizations with emotion, but...