The ensemble of “The Hairy Ape.” (Stephanie Berger)
Theater critic

NEW YORK — The lives of the working stiffs in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” may be brutal, but the portraits of their labors in Richard Jones’s visually stunning new revival are sublime.

With an eye that reminds you more of a cinematographer than a theater director, Jones stages the eight scenes of O’Neill’s 1922 play on a conveyor belt centered on a grand blank canvas: the cavernous confines of the Park Avenue Armory. It’s such an epic vision of the piece, the role of the “ape” could have gone to King Kong.

In this case, it actually went to someone who manages to seem almost as big: the ferocious Bobby Cannavale, who breathes fire into the drama’s central heap-of-clay character, a ship’s stoker ultimately crushed by his own audacious conviction that he’s as good, or better, than the toffs who want to keep him in his place.

“The Hairy Ape” caused a sensation at its New York opening in early March, 95 years ago: “A wildly fantastic play of nightmare hue and nightmare distortion,” Alexander Wolcott called it in his New York Times review. It is a play of dark, warring impulses, those perceived by a writer who sensed irony and injustice in the grinding economic realities and class-consciousness of the late industrial age. Forever enamored of stories of the sea, O’Neill makes his hero, Cannavale’s simple-minded Yank, a man who sails the ocean but never sees it. He’s stuck in the hole with the other greasy lugs who make the ship’s engines run. But he’s not humbled by his status; he revels in the knowledge he’s the muscle that makes the machinery run. “Twenty-five knots an hour — that’s me!” he bellows, in a state somewhere between irate and feral.

A modern audience is perhaps a bit too jaded to respond with alarm to the social stratification revealed so sardonically in “The Hairy Ape”; Yank, professing his earthy, manly pride so innocently, may have seemed a new kind of character on the stage in 1922. But the archetype is now a familiar one, channeled again and again in American drama through such oft-seen figures as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” So “The Hairy Ape” comes across more as a curious artifact than a story to lose oneself in. It presents, rather, a golden opportunity for a skilled theater imagist to repaint those “nightmare hues” for the contemporary stage — and remind us, once again, of how  O’Neill’s Yank imposes himself indelibly on the landscape of the swells.

All of which is accomplished grandly by Jones and his design team, who first mounted this revival in a more conventional proscenium-style setting at the Old Vic in London. In the Armory — the scene three years ago of an equally cinematic “Macbeth” with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston — Jones and set and costume designer Stewart Laing have room to experiment in a vast space where expressionism, surrealism and naturalism mix marvelously.


Bobby Cannavale and the cast of “The Hairy Ape.” (Stephanie Berger)

Some of the most visually captivating scenes occur in the bowels of the ocean liner, painted a hot yellow (the same striking color as our seats). In the opening scenes, choreographer Aletta Collins creates a veritable freeze-frame ballet, with the firemen swaying to the movement of the vessel and then, at regular intervals, holding sculptural poses that in some cases look as if they defy the laws of physics. The tableaux are mesmerizing. And, if you’ve ever been to the Mammal Halls of the American Museum of Natural History, the working men frozen in space will remind you of other creatures exhibited in their natural habitats.

The visual panache extends all through the production’s 90 minutes, as the grunting, chest-thumping, seemingly inexhaustible Cannavale leaves one cage, only to find his Yank trapped in yet others. With excellent assists from an ensemble that includes David Costabile, Becky Ann Baker, Catherine Combs and an impressively simian Phil Hill, the “nightmare distortions” of “The Hairy Ape” come exhilaratingly into focus.

The Hairy Ape, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Richard Jones. Sets and costumes, Stewart Laing; choreography, Aletta Collins; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin; music and sound, Sarah Angliss; fight direction, Thomas Schall; dialects, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Thom Widmann. With Henry Stram, Cosmo Jarvis. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $60-$195. Through April 22 at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., New York. Visit armoryonpark.org or call 212-933-5812.