Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist play about class divide and personal identity in a capitalist society is an unsettling one, both physically and metaphorically

By Maya Stanton
April 03, 2017 at 01:27 PM EDT
Credit: Stephanie Berger

The experience of watching The Old Vic/Park Avenue Armory co-production of The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist play about class divide and personal identity in a capitalist society, is an unsettling one, both physically and metaphorically. Yes, the seating at the Armory is incredibly uncomfortable, but the uptown location, isolated from the theater district, is even more disconcerting. As it turns out, though, the cognitive dissonance between a work of art and a setting that inherently encapsulates the disparities at its heart is a jarring but ultimately effective tool.

In the drama, Bobby Cannavale’s Yank is a fireman, which here means a coal-shoveling oven-stoker on an ocean liner sailing from New York in the 1920s. He thrives on the work, all swagger and machismo, leading the line of men who brave the heat to power the ship until a snub from wealthy young girl (Catherine Combs) untethers him from his reality. Before, he shot down a colleague’s attempts to agitate for better working conditions as cowardice; after the snub, he recognizes the imbalance inherent in the owner-laborer dynamic, and the realization leaves him fundamentally unsettled, questioning his place in society.

Director Richard Jones also helmed a 2015 production of the play in London, and the newly added American actors benefit from his intimate knowledge of the material. Tony-nominee Cannavale (The Motherf—er With the Hat, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) brings an animalistic physicality to the central role, while Combs is the embodiment of a narcissistic dilettante dabbling in “how the other half lives”-style tourism. Becky Ann Baker (Girls) and David Costabile (Billions), in lamentably minor roles, round out the capable cast.

In keeping with O’Neill’s written directive, the staging is by no means naturalistic. Sets arrive via a conveyor belt that encircles the audience, delivering each scene change — from the dioramas of the ship crew’s quarters to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue shop windows — with a mechanized nod to the industrialization that changed the American economy. Stewart Laing’s design is visually stunning, with pops of yellow that evoke coal’s sulfuric flame, and the production makes full use of the Armory’s cavernous 55,000-square foot interior, from the vaulted ceiling to the darkest corners.

There’s something undeniably ironic about watching a performance about income inequality and the class struggle on the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money, but the juxtaposition between setting and subject matter only helps the play land its punches. In an era in which companies are given rights like people — and actual people are still seen as cogs in the machine by multinational corporations solidifying their power under what many see as a robber-baron presidency — O’Neill’s cutting critique of American social and economic structures couldn’t be more relevant. B