The Pioneer: Early O’Neill at Metropolitan Playhouse

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Last night I caught a production of four early O’Neill one-acts or sketches, followed by a late monologue. The whole thing took place at Metropolitan Playhouse, a downtown treasure chest for anyone interested in early American theater.

O’Neill, in fact, is a little late for these guys, whose previous productions include nineteenth-century works such as Mowatt’s Fashion, Dunlap’s Andre, Boucicault’s The Octoroon, Stone’s Metamora, Herne’s Margaret Fleming, or turn-of-the-century plays like Zangwill’s The Melting Pot and Fitch’s The City. The Metropolitan folks have long prided themselves on showcasing American theater before O’Neill. Last night what we saw was a bit like O’Neill before O’Neill.

The pieces we saw were “Before Breakfast” (1916), a one-woman monologue set in the margins of Greenwich Village bohemia; a Melvillean/Conradian sea-piece called “Ile” (1917), in which a monomaniacal whaleship captain pushes his men — and his wife, who’s along for the voyage — to the edge in his mad dash for 400 barrels; “The Movie Man” (1914), a satire on Hollywood’s investment in foreign war — in this case the Mexican revolution — in which a couple American filmmakers head south as embedded journalists of sorts in search of the perfect war footage (and a little sex on the side); “The Web” (1913), a tragicomic prostitute/gangster sketch set, presumably, on the Lower East Side, not far from where Stephen Crane’s Maggie would have lived; and “The Last Will and Testament of Silverdene Emblem O’Neill” (1940), a humorous and moving monologue on mortality spoken posthumously by O’Neill’s dog.

The texts for all of these and more are available online from the O’Neill eText Archive. Alex Roe, the Metropolitan’s Artistic Director (who pulled off a fantastic performance as “Blemie,” the dog, in the final monologue), wonders whether some of this material belonged to the trunk of plays O’Neill supposedly had with him when he first showed up in Provincetown.

The promotional material for the show had pegged “The Web” as the most “New York” of these plays, and it was easily the most energetic and rewarding. (Keri Serato, who played female roles in two of the other pieces as well, only fully came to life here, and delivered fantastically as the consumptive dame, and David Patrick Ford as a gangster on the run helped her push the role to its potential.) But I was pleasantly surprised by all the sideways glances at Village bohemia in “Before Breakfast.” As “Mrs. Rowland,” Sidney Forter gave a riveting performance — over half an hour spent talking to her husband, who’s supposedly shaving off stage, while she prepares his breakfast. He never answers, in spite of the fact that she moves from idle early morning chit-chat (between sneaking sips from a flask she keeps hidden) to a withering tongue-lashing for his failure to hold a job (a Harvard grad who’s knocked up the daughter of an Irish grocer, he’s slumming in the Village as a poet) and for his affair with a rich-girl fellow slummer who’s been duped by his poetic talk. In this sketch and in “The Web,” O’Neill takes potshots at wealthy New Yorkers with benevolent intentions, reformers who depend on vice for a sense of their own morality. Here the noble Harvard grad who’s heroically married the lower-class girl he impregnated lives a bohemian dream that begins to crumble on itself long before the action’s through.

I’ve seen half a dozen or so plays at the Metropolitan and always feel rewarded for having made it out. No one else does this kind of work. But last night was unique in at least one way: Usually I’m aware that the plays I’m watching — Stone’s Metamora, for instance — were designed for enormous nineteenth-century theater spaces, not the intimate 60-or-so seater you find at the Metropolitan. Last night’s material, though, was clearly written for  the “little” theaters of the early twentieth century downtown scene. They seemed perfectly suited to the space, which in several of the pieces came to feel as claustrophobic as a captain’s quarters in an ice-bound whaler or an LES tenement filled with TB, crying babies, and shouting neighbors. It’s unusual to feel transported to another age’s production plan — the sort of space where you set up a few tables and chairs, gather some like-minded folks together, and put on a play you’ve written for all your smartest friends.

“The Pioneer” (the name they’ve assigned to the five pieces together) plays at Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street (between A and B) until December 9. For more information click here.
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