Arts Desk

In Their Eyes, the Light of a Dawning Madness Is Shining: Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Reviewed

Cara Francis, Lauren Sharpe, Erica Livingston, Brendan Donaldson (floor), Jacquelyn Landgraf, Connor Kalista and Daniel Burnam perform "Before Breakfast."

Watchmen author Alan Moore, whom many regard as the most fertile mind ever to devote itself to writing comic books, used to drive artists batty with his hyper-detailed descriptions of the artwork, enumerating the precise contents of each panel he wanted to see on the page in nigh-impossible-to-draw detail.

In this, Moore is a spiritual descendant of Eugene O’Neill, the guy who expanded the sophistication of American drama arguably to the same degree Moore expanded the sophistication of comics. O’Neill, who died nine days after Moore was born, stuffed his scripts with filigreed prose that put a picture in the reader’s mind, but showed little consideration for the directors charged with making it physical. Or, I suppose you could argue, actually showed great respect for their craft by offering a wealth of intangible material vis-à-vis mood and tone for the director of, for example, 1914’s Thirst to keep in mind as he set about turning instructions like

Here and there on the still surface of the sea the fins of sharks may be seen slowly cutting the surface of the water in lazy circles. 

…into something an audience in a playhouse could actually look at.

The one-acts that O’Neill wrote in his tuberculosis-stricken twenties are just lousy with this sort of thing. But his later, more famous plays like Long Day's Journey Into Night are full of loopy description, too, especially of people. What if someone who didn’t speak in hyperbole considered each stage direction an inviolable command? Or worse, took a strict-constructionist approach to casting, where O’Neill was forever sending specs to the actor factory for bodies with “irregular features” or “an ironical mouth” or who were simply “cross-eyed,” which, I mean, you can at least picture it, right?

That’s the one joke in The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays. But hey, it’s a good joke! The New York branch of the Chicago-founded theater troupe The Neo-Futurists has expanded what was once a two-minute short in the Neo-Futurists’s long-running, 30-plays-in-60-minutes show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind to 90 minutes. That works out to about one-third too much of a very good thing. Which is still a good thing, even if you’re squirming at bit in that final half-hour.

The troupe does Synetic Theatre’s wordless-Shakespeare thing one better—or, worse, depending—stripping a half-dozen or so O’Neill plays of their dialogue. Christopher Loar compiled and edited the stage directions, which velvety-voiced Jacquelyn Landgraf reads aloud while a company of a half-dozen players attempts to execute her increasingly convoluted orders. It’s rehearsed, but there’s a margin of improvisation. And for all their fearlessness and discipline, watching Landgraf and the players try not to laugh is one of the show’s delights.

At Arena Stage tonight at 8 p.m., tomorrow at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Photo courtesy Anton Nickel/Arena Stage.

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