ON A WORK IN PROGRESS:
Barbara Gelb's My Gene, a two-act, one-character play about Eugene O'Neill's widow Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Martinson Hall on January 29, 1987. It would be an understatement to say that the reviews of the production were "mixed": many were tastelessly, painfully negative, especially in their reactions to the script. "Mundane phrases that ... seem unedited by art" (Clive Barnes in the New York Post), "inept words ... numbing your ears" (Michel Feingold in The Village Voice), and "journalism, not theatre" (Howard Kissel in The Daily News): harsh words indeed, especially when coupled with the often-voiced inference that Joseph Papp would never have produced the play if its author were not the wife of the powerful managing editor of the New York Times. In short, there was more evidence of envy and the settling of old scores than of responsible or objective criticism.
Fortunately, Gelb and her star, Colleen Dewhurst, ignored the critics' venomous jabs and carried on with the more important job of honing the quality of script and performance. And public response corroborated their decision: the show played to large and frequently sold-out houses, concluding its more than respectable run on Sunday, March 22. The critics lost their almost unanimous battle to kill My Gene.
Before attending the performance on Tuesday, March 3. I had been primed by the reviewers to expect an amateurishly structured play, awkwardly written, and riddled with illogical transitions and ill conceived notions of character development--a "bravura performance" (John Beaufort in the Christian Science Monitor) imperiled by but miraculously surviving its author's ineptitude. What I saw, however, was something quite different. A full six weeks into the run, a very nervous and pressured Colleen Dewhurst was still clearly struggling to capture and convey the mercurial nature of Carlotta Monterey O'Neill. There was no question but that Dewhurst's stage presence was imposing. But it was my observation that she was relying on years of refined technique to cover gaps in her performance. It was apparent that she had not yet come to terms with Carlotta, a problem which the critics may have attributed to the wrong artist. The performance was certainly competent, but it lacked a clear, definable core characterization. And such a flaw can as easily be the fault of performer and director as of the playwright.
I should mention that the March 3 performance was exceptional in a way unanticipated by any of its participants but illustrative of a lesson the actress had learned before My Gene opened. In a pre-show article in the Times ("Colleen Dewhurst Portrays O'Neill's Haunted Widow," Sunday, January 25, 1987, Sec. 2, pp. 3-4), Helen Dudar told how Dewhurst, jittery about doing a play all alone, had called on a friend, one--person-show veteran Zoe Caldwell, for advice, and how Caldwell replied that she'd hate it "until she found the companionship of an audience." That night it was very clear that Dewhurst had taken Caldwell's advice to heart. About halfway through, an elderly attender became ill and an ambulance had to be called. The audience remained very quiet, out of respect for the actress, who, they knew, was continuing because she was unaware of the situation occurring in the house. Becoming conscious of the growing undercurrent in the audience, she hesitated a few times, sensing that something was wrong but unsure what to do. She finally stopped and gently asked, "Are we looking for a doctor?" Softly and in one voice, the audience replied, "Yes." "Shall we stop for a while?" Again the communal whisper, "Yes." It was a moment in theatre as compelling as the play being performed. Dewhurst had included us in the process of performance. It was clear that she depended on us and needed us to start and finish the work at hand. We were her partners. That was foremost in her thinking as she tried to deal with the unknown threat in the darkness. At that moment the raw power of the actress's dependence on the audience was breathtaking. In terms of the immediate emergency, it was gratifying and heartwarming. But it also heightened the sense I had had earlier---that she was grasping outside of herself for support. Because she had not internalized the sources of her character's motivations, Dewhurst's characterization was vulnerable to any interference that might present itself.
Barbara Gelb was in the audience that night, so our discussion two days later included reference to the event's effect on the performance.
That Gelb was not herself "thrown" by the critics' attacks was also clear; indeed, she had expected them.
The phrase "extremely obliging" begged for explanation. Perhaps the team had been too "obliging." Since I had observed weaknesses in the acting and directing, I decided to pursue questions about My Gene's rehearsals. Problems during that period could have a permanent effect on the outcome of the production. Gelb reluctantly described Dewhurst's behavior:
As Gelb and I discussed the origins of the project which eventually became My Gene, it became clear that some of the problems entailed in the production might have arisen from the differing expectations of the actress and the playwright. Dewhurst had asked Gelb to write her a monodrama to be used in touring colleges. She was thinking of scripts Gelb had written for private presentations by the Theater Committee for Eugene O'Neill. The format for those programs had been documentary: readings from O'Neill's plays--by Dewhurst, Jason Robards, Geraldine Fitzgerald and others--interspersed with slides and discussions of O'Neill's life. In making her request, the actress had in mind a tourable, one-person equivalent of those earlier evenings. When Gelb presented her, instead, with a full play with Carlotta O'Neill as its heroine, she didn't know how to react.
But why had Gelb's hopes for the script become so lofty? It was because she had never had the opportunity to tell the whole truth about Carlotta, and this play was to be her chance. When the Gelbs had set out to write the first major biography of O'Neill, there had been restrictions:
In order to write the book in the way they felt it must be written, the Gelbs decided they had to take their chances with lawsuits:
On the suggestion of lawyers, the Gelbs were advised to ask Carlotta for a taped interview which would state for posterity her side of the relationship with O'Neill. Since Mrs. Gelb was "out of favor" with Mrs. O'Neill at the time, it was her husband Arthur who recorded the crucial interview. Much of it was later used in My Gene.
After Carlotta's death in 1970, the biographers were able to make some revisions in their 1962 volume. They added further information about the O'Neills' tempestuous marriage into the body of the text, and they appended an epilogue about Carlotta's final years. Still, Mrs. Gelb was irked by required limitations:
The dissatisfaction with never having been able to tell the complete story remained with Barbara Gelb. When Dewhurst asked her for a manuscript, the idea of writing a play with Carlotta as heroine was born.
The scope of the project which finally became My Gene needed the guidance of a playwriting expert. Gelb took her script to Joseph Papp.
Gelb described the play's evolution as being "very much a collaborative process." For instance, director Mike Nichols had suggested the superstructure which was finally used. According to Gelb, Nichols said that it would be interesting to have the audience confronted with the question, "is she crazy, or isn't she crazy?" The result of this discussion with Nichols led Gelb to set the play in Carlotta's room in the psychiatric unit of St. Luke's Hospital during the last two years of her life. The aging widow is discovered, at the start, pleading with an unseen physician and trying to convince him that she is sane. The audience is drawn into the argument as bits and pieces of Carlotta's behavior in the hospital are juxtaposed with her recollections of her life with O'Neill. These are parts of the puzzle the audience is left to complete: the final decision as to Carlotta's sanity rests with them--with us.
I wondered whether the decision to show Carlotta in her last days, locked in a hospital ward and presumed insane, didn't absolve the viewers from having to participate in the decisions Gelb wanted them to make. Showing her earlier could also have afforded us more of the regal grandeur that Carlotta Monterey had adopted along with her name--the queenly aura that Zoe Caldwell conveyed in "Eugene O'Neill--A Glory of Ghosts." Dewhurst's Carlotta appeared defeated from the start, and there was no apparent attempt to make her look like the real Mrs. O'Neill. The playwright bristled at the last observation:
Some reviewers had criticized Gelb for incorporating speeches from O'Neill's plays into her script: Mildred Douglas, Nina Leeds, Mary Tyrone, Josie Hogan and Deborah Harford are all briefly represented. The playwright made the purpose and value of those interpolations very clear: she saw the speeches as integral in developing Carlotta's persona. To Gelb, Carlotta was the model for many of O'Neill's heroines. Mary Tyrone, for instance: while she was clearly modeled on Ella O'Neill, there was also a good deal of Carlotta in her composition.
Gelb's portrait of Carlotta revealed an individual so complex that it conjured images of a Tennessee Williams courtesan, a Blanche DuBois. It is no wonder that Dewhurst, despite her triumphant portrayals of many baffling Eugene O'Neill heroines, had such difficulties sustaining a characterization of Carlotta O'Neill. She had been presented with one of the most intricate and challenging roles of her entire career, and one whose challenge was intensified by setting the play so late in Carlotta's life.
The challenge to the audience---to decide the question about Carlotta's sanity--was integral to Gelb's purpose, which was to present neither the villainess limned by Mrs. O'Neill's detractors nor the apotheosized idol of her admirers, but the real woman in all her enigmatic complexity.
One thing that My Gene definitely is not, is boring. The performance I saw, two nights before my interview with its author, revealed an interesting work that admittedly had flaws but was certainly stageworthy, an event to witness from an historical as well as a theatrical perspective. Happily, there are plans for My Gene to tour colleges and universities during the next few years. Gelb and Dewhurst will have plenty of time to perfect the final shape of the work and the presentation of its fascinating heroine---a luxury unavailable amid the imposed restrictions surrounding the New York production. They will be sharing their wealth of knowledge of O'Neill's life, and wife, and work with an eager and unbiased audience. My Gene is a work in progress. Its outcome can only serve to benefit the fortunate recipients of Gelb's and Dewhurst 's courageous partnership.
--Sheila Hickey Garvey
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