A student once asked playwright and teacher William McCleery why dramatists were called playwrights and not playwrites. “Because plays are not written,” he replied, “they’re wrought.” He paused, then murmured, “Sometimes overwrought.” Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, now at the Odyssey, serves up a double whammy: an overexcited melodrama suffering through an over-the-top production. This story of seafaring folk traps us in a perfect storm of whiny and unsympathetic characters, prolix writing, major overacting, and strange, incongruous, and sometimes simply annoying production elements.
Eugene O’Neill, often referred to as America’s greatest playwright, was a Nobel laureate who received the second of his four Pulitzer Prizes for Anna Christie. The play, which debuted in 1921, finds Chris Christopherson (Jeff Perry), the captain of a coal barge, awaiting a visit from his daughter Anna (Zoe Perry), whom he hasn’t seen since she was a child. Anna’s life on a Minnesota farm wasn’t the idyll her father thought it was: she was abused, fell into prostitution, and is recovering from an illness when she arrives at the wharf. Chris, ignorant of his daughter’s past, welcomes her, and breaks up with his live-in inamorata so Anna can stay with him on the barge. When Anna falls in love with Mat Burke (Kevin McKidd), a stoker she rescues from drowning, Chris’s paternal feelings reawaken, as he vows his daughter will never marry a man of the sea.
Actors love to act in O’Neill, and Anna Christie is no exception, as evidenced by its many revivals. The great acting teacher Stella Adler, an astute analyst of plays and playwrights, felt the serious American play began with O’Neill. She taught that he wrote in “an extreme form,” with characters who fight and struggle, and warned actors that playing him required “size” while maintaining the new realism he introduced to the American theatre.
It’s no insult to O’Neill’s genuine talent to say the play has aged, and his dialogue today seems more ham-handed than poetic. And unfortunately, the talented cast – which has demonstrated in the past how capable they are of nuance and subtlety – has been encouraged to indulge in histrionics: relentless acting of the table-banging, chest-thumping, yelling-at-the-top-of-my-lungs-to-show-you-how-upset-I-am variety. A little of this goes a very long way: it soon becomes wearying, and eventually approaches risibility. All of which, alas, risks making the play into a cartoon rather than the gut-wrenching chunk of realistic drama O’Neill intended.
Added to this are production oddities. The set is a massive raised slab placed at an oblique angle in the space, and surrounded by a moat of real water, lined with what looks like a giant Hefty bag. The platform functions as a bar in the first of four acts, and Chris’s barge for the rest. It’s an intriguingly abstract set which works well, and the surrounding water is a nice touch. However, the water is used inconsistently: Mat is saved from drowning by being hauled onto the barge out of it, leading us to think the water is supposed to be deep. But then the actors will stand in it, or roll around in it, as if it’s the actual depth of several inches. To be sure, they leap into it, fall into it, and splash around in it so much that, shallow or deep, it loses its magic.
The restless lighting design constantly brightens and dims as characters move about the stage, and features a lighting fixture which, in Act Four, grows so irritatingly bright it threatens to blind the audience. And what’s with those two things sitting on the floor at the beginning which look like a pair of mismatched table lamps?
A musical score, played live on the saxophone, cleverly dissolves into a foghorn sound effect at one point, but is intrusive elsewhere. And as for the fog, be prepared: it swirls constantly, and after a while, if you’re like me, your eyes will start to water.
To be fair, I found myself wondering whether anyone could give a rational reading of the play in 2015. For while some of its themes are timeless and universal, it was written when women still didn’t have the right to vote, and the antiquated attitudes shine through. Like Kate’s submission to Petruchio at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, how can we square Mat’s “generous forgiveness” of Anna for her past – and her acceptance of his largesse – with our present-day belief that women should be in control of their lives and their destiny, and don’t need to apologize for surviving?
Back to Miss Adler. She once wrote, “Becoming a star in Hollywood is practical. Wanting to act in the plays of Eugene O’Neill is ambitious.” I applaud the ambition of these actors for wanting to do Anna Christie, and the Odyssey for presenting what has become a historical piece. Now get real.
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Kim Rubinstein
Starring Zoe Perry, Jeff Perry, Kevin McKidd, Mary Mara, Martin Gutfeldt, Jason Liska, Tait Ruppert
Produced by Beth Hogan
Presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Ron Sossi Artistic Director
Through March 8
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90025
Tickets: (310) 477-2055 ext. 2 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com