By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated April 28, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Liz Lauren

Compared with her costars — particularly two-time Tony winner Brian Dennehy, our generation’s foremost interpreter of the plays of Eugene O’Neill — Carla Gugino is a theatrical tenderfoot. She has made as many professional stage experiences as she has Spy Kids movies (three). Yet the minute Gugino’s untamed Abbie — the 35-year-old trophy wife of Dennehy’s 75-year-old Ephraim Cabot — strides into this steamy if not scorching revival of Desire Under the Elms, she stakes claim to more than just the Cabot farm: ”It’s purty — purty! I can’t b’lieve it’s r’ally mine.” She owns the show.

The former model is certainly equipped to be an object of ”desire.” But Gugino also displays a rare combination of motherly warmth and wild-eyed sensuality, not to mention a complete ease with the playwright’s extremely stylized dialogue: ”I don’t want t’ pretend playin’ Maw t’ ye, Eben,” Gugino’s Abbie says upon first meeting her defensive stepson Eben (Pablo Schreiber). ”Ye’re too big an’ too strong fur that. I want t’ be frens with ye. Mebbe with me fur a fren ye’d find ye’d like livin’ here better.”

Of course, anyone can see that Abbie and the 25-year-old Eben are fated to be more than just ”frens.” Anyone, that is, but Ephraim, who’s apparently oblivious to the incestuous goings-on — even when Abbie gives birth (on stage, between scenes!) to a son who’s the ”dead spit ‘n’ image o’ ” Eben. (Director Robert Falls has eliminated the party scene in which the townspeople titter over Abbie’s more-than-maternal interest in Eben and facetiously admire Ephraim’s ability to reproduce at such a ripe old age; it’s one of several judicious cuts he’s made to bring Elms to a taut, intermissionless 100 minutes.)

When the Oedipal affair takes the inevitable appalling turn, Abbie goes from madly in love to just plain mad — an area that’s turning out to be Gugino’s forte. Recall her 2004 Broadway debut, an ill-conceived revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, in which she sparkled as a suicidal Marilyn Monroe-esque singer; then in 2006, she livened up Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer as a fresh-from-the-looney-bin lobotomy candidate. She goes crazy very convincingly. Schreiber, however, simply isn’t up to the immense challenges of the mother-loving Eben: The boy despises Ephraim for working his mom to death and stealing her farm, he lusts after Abbie, he resents Abbie for taking his mom’s place — there’s a fine line between love and hate, but it’s nowhere to be found on Schreiber’s face or in his voice. He just seems angry all the time. And if Dennehy’s slight Irish brogue seems more apropos for Long Day’s Journey Into Night or A Touch of the Poet, he’s completely in command, every inch the rock-like Ephraim that Elms requires; ”his face is as hard as if it were hewn out of a boulder,” wrote O’Neill of the character.

And speaking of rocks…they essentially take the place of elms in this production. Enormous, back-breakingly heavy boulders are stacked everywhere on Walt Spangler’s stunningly expressionistic set, suggesting that all that’s growing on this land is rage, sin, and duplicity. The farmhouse, suspended in mid-air for much of the play, seems as if it could crush the Cabots at any moment. Actually, that set could crush a lot of Broadway actors. But not Dennehy. And certainly not the marvelous Gugino. B+