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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 1
Spring, 1982



8. "Eugene O'Neill: From the Sea to the City," a double bill of The Moon of the Caribbees and Hughie, conceived and designed by Harold Easton and directed by Rob Mulholland. Studio Theatre Productions, New York City, January 27-30, 1982.

[A background note. Messrs. Easton and Mulholland chose to present these two one-acts, so widely separated in time of writing (1916 and 1941), as a package because, according to Mr. Easton, they share, despite vastly different locales, the same theme: "the need for human contact in a hostile world." Accordingly, they attempted to be "faithful to O'Neill's vision" by presenting Caribbees as "a mood piece, done as an ensemble," whose "hero ... is the sea." They employed stylized audio-visual effects ("visuals to suggest island, ocean, beach and sky, coupled with a continuous sound track of the sea and the melancholy West Indian chant" mentioned in O'Neill's stage directions) both as atmosphere and as "glimpses into Smitty's thoughts, described in O'Neill's script, but rarely 'seen' by the audience." They used a similar device in Hughie--slides that "coincide visually" with a tape of street sounds--to convey the desk clerk's unspoken thoughts and feelings, the goal being "to give the audience both characters' points of view, as we feel O'Neill intended." Ed.]

The double bill, produced by Hal Easton, a doctoral candidate in Theatre Education at New York University, was presented at NYU's Studio Theatre, a storefront with large windows onto the street. Slides were used as backdrops for both plays, and Erie entered from outside the building so our first glimpse of him was through the large storefront window. Occasionally the characters in Caribbees froze, to emphasize a moment of silent or poetic contemplation. In other respects, the two productions were fairly conventional.

Moon of the Caribbees calls for a large cast, and it was evident that some members were theatre students, still a little shaky on their acting legs. Scrupulous attention had been paid to trying to get the varied national accents to sound authentic, but with differing degrees of success. The closeness of the audience to the staging area mitigated against our being able to lose the sense of where we were (i.e., in a storefront in Manhattan). The production, in short, seemed to me very well intentioned and highly acceptable on an amateur level.

Crew of the S.S. Glencairn in Studio Theatre production of Moon of the Caribbees. (Photo by Michael Fischer)

Hal Easton (Night Clerk) and Joseph Dobish (Erie Smith) in Studio Theatre production of Hughie. (Photo by Michael Fischer)

However, the production of Hughie was beautifully acted, with Joseph Dobish as Erie and Harold Easton as the night clerk, and here the setting enhanced the sense of being in that kind of grimy, run-down anonymous "hell-hole" which is the warren of almost all O'Neill protagonists. While I felt that the slides, which were supposed to let the audience know what the desk clerk was thinking about while Erie was speaking, did not particularly aid the production, they were not too annoyingly distracting either, and Mr. Easton reported that he found that those audience members who knew the play did not like the slides, whereas those who had no previous knowledge of the work found the slides helpful. (Chacun a son gout!) Dobish's Erie didn't have quite the degree of of self-loathing and despair that Jason Robards brings to the part. He seemed a smaller man, a little punk, but the sense of the two coming together in a pathetic relationship was vivid and touching.

Easton had grown an O'Neill-style moustache for the production. Though his resemblance to O'Neill was still not great, I felt that he was making a silent statement of sorts for those who, knowing how O'Neill looked, might pick up the somewhat extraneous reference--extraneous in the sense that it is not given as part of the play.

The observation of the duality of the split characters in O'Neill's plays is a common one, but it is interesting to have it used here. The night clerk's spirits are lifted, after all, by listening to the worn out talk of a self-condemning charlatan. Perhaps Hughes' position, necessary to Erie, is essential to the creative artist as well. It's a side of Keats's negative capability which he might not have thought of, but might have accepted as a valid extension of his idea into the 1980's. The non-academic friend I took with me to the performance turned to me afterward and said, "It's been too long since I've read any O'Neill." It's always good to have a thoughtful, well-executed production of his work before us again.

--Vera Jiji



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