O'Neill's 'Ape' has a museum quality

Special to Newsday

October 11, 2006

Despite stunning stagecraft and some crisp acting, the Irish Repertory Theatre's dutiful new revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape" is rough sailing, and not just because its first half is set in the hellish stokehole of an ocean liner.

This 1922 chestnut about the dehumanizing effects of the late industrial age was something of a watershed in its day. It was an experimental departure from O'Neill's earlier work and a precursor to the social dramas of Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. The play's influence may ripple still further, to Edward Albee's "Zoo Story" and even to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." Yank, the pent-up antihero of "The Hairy Ape," with his uncomprehending, ultimately sociopathic disgust at modern city life, seems eerily like an early-model Travis Bickle.

But important as it was to O'Neill's development and to American drama, "The Hairy Ape" looks like a missing link that belongs in a museum (or a multimedia deconstruction like the Wooster Group's 1997 production). It follows the stiff-necked Yank from the stokehole, where he and a crew of lunkheads drink, bicker and sweat, into the class-riven bustle of Manhattan, where an encounter with some Fifth Avenue toffs lands him in jail.

At every step, Yank is a one-note signifier of the disenfranchised underclass. He is so dim and demoralized that he's beyond the help of even the well-meaning Wobblies of the Industrial Workers of the World union. When a brittle young heiress (Kerry Bishé) ventures below deck to see how the other half lives, she gets just a few steps into Yank's toxic workplace before she labels him a "filthy beast" and faints.

Tough and strapping as he looks, Yank is so wounded by this humiliation that he's inconsolable. When prodded, he bellows to his cackling mates, "Can't youse see I'm tryin' to t'ink?" If only these poor swine knew their art history: As anyone can see, Yank has struck the pose of Rodin's "Thinker."

That visual quote is one of director Ciarán O'Reilly's wittier inspirations. His other stabs at expressionism are mostly leaden: a stomping boiler-room march to suggest the numbing lockstep of exploited labor; a carousel of sashaying upper-crusters twirling around the helpless Yank. Bearing most of the weight of the stylization are Eugene Lee's imposing two-tier set, ringed with cages, and Brian Nason's glaring lights.

Gregory Derelian is often compelling as Yank, his egg-white eyes popping out of a coal-blackened face with almost cartoonish intensity, his broad-trunked frame hunched in a simian crouch. The rest of the actors are similarly on point, particularly Allen McCullough as a straight-talking union leader and David Lansbury as a fired-up communist. But for all the fire in its belly, this museum piece "Hairy Ape" mostly blows hot air.

THE HAIRY APE. Written by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly. Through Nov. 19 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., Manhattan. Tickets $50-$55. Call 212-727-2737. Seen Saturday.

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