Eugene O'Neill, king of comedy?
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Apr. 13, 2012
Most of us watching a performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" probably don't notice how many times the playwright has his characters shrug.
Christopher Loar, an actor with the troupe the New York Neo-Futurists, is mildly obsessed with it.
O'Neill's stage directions are notoriously meticulous - to an extreme, some might argue. In his productions, actors don't just deliver their lines; they must do so with "dark eyes dancing with a keen sense of humor." A performer might be required to "flit nervously around the room with quick bird-like movements" or wear the face of someone stricken with consumption, coughing "a harsh hacking cough that shakes her whole body."
"The main thing," Loar says, "is that he just wrote so many of them."
While the rest of the Eugene O'Neill Festival is dredging up the playwright's penchant for tragic families, Loar and the Neo-Futurists - known for performing 30 plays in 60 minutes in "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" - will be using their succinct, physical approach to mine this particular part of the O'Neill oeuvre for laughs, however unintentional.
"The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill Vol. 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays," kicking off a brief run Thursday at Arena Stage, strips the dialogue from the playwright's early works and leaves only the directions.
The playwright's notes, says Loar, "all have a kind of lyrical and overdone, obsessive-compulsive nature to them that I think fuels a lot of the comedy."
The seeds for "Complete and Condensed" were planted when Loar gave the same treatment to "Long Day's Journey" for a two-minute microplay in "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind." The piece clicked with audiences, so Loar, who is also directing, continued looking for other pieces he could compile into a longer work.
"I just started going through the canon of the plays," he recalls. "I was really skeptical at first that this conceit could elicit comedy, but what I've found is that the majority of them are really, really funny."
When "Complete and Condensed" is performed, the stage directions are read aloud by a narrator and then pantomimed by a cast of six Neo-Futurists.
"That's part of the fun in the condensing," says Rob Neill, the troupe's co-managing director. "There are no more bridges given by the words . . . it's just sort of pure action."
The show makes surprising sense for the Neo-Futurists because the company is expert at performing what Neill calls task-based theater. And what was the playwright if not a task driver?
In truth, such detailed stage directions were very much in keeping with what playwrights of the era were doing, and they suggest the writing of a would-be novelist or poet, which O'Neill was. In modern screenwriting and playwriting, Neill says, "they like to take the stage directions out and give the artists room to create." Not so with O'Neill, who, Loar adds, "didn't trust actors."
Loar says that although there are O'Neill junkies who have seen the show many times, a familiarity with the playwright's work is hardly necessary.
"This is Volume One," he says, "so they're not necessarily plays that everyone's familiar with. You don't have to know all the plays we're doing to appreciate it. It becomes its own piece of art."