Saturday, June 25, 2011


Eugene O'Neill is the only American playwright to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature.


And that was in 1936.

It does make a certain amount of sense. O'Neill is widely attributed with establishing America's first, real theatrical identity. Even the playwright himself in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech said "that this Nobel Prize is a symbol of the recognition by Europe of the coming-of-age of the American theatre." Today, many plays that are held up by critics and audiences as original, groundbreaking works of art are simply retreads of Mr. O'Neill's plays. August: Osage County, I'm looking at you...

Imagine the pressure. Imagine an entire country - an entire world - breathing down your neck, anticipating your next assumed masterstroke.

Less than a decade later in 1943, O'Neill, stricken by Parkinson's disease, would attempt and sadly fail to write his final play, Blind Alley Guy. All that remains of that theatrical phantasm are pages and pages of handwritten, and often contradictory notes - giving an insightful, intimate view into the playwright's process, life, and creative demise.

But what can be done with all those notes other than creating countless three-hole-punched theses filled with weighty scholarly conjecture that only a seasoned librarian of Congress could possibly appreciate? Well, how about exploring the playwright's process...with a play? A simple, complicated idea that is currently being explored at St. Mark's Church after an original production in Carnegie Mellon School of Drama's 2011 New Works Festival.

Conceived and directed by Joshua William Gelb, Blind Alley Guy: An Unfinished Play by Eugene O'Neill, introduces the audience to an O'Neill they've never met before - an unconfident, indecisive bundle of nerves.

The plot of the play that O'Neill was trying to write is in some ways inconsequential, but it is, more or less, about a gangster, sentenced to death by electric chair, and his family. That gangster is never actually featured onstage, but only referred back to by his family and lover. O'Neill speaks as though this was an entirely original idea, but it is one that he himself used only a few years earlier in 'Hughie', in which the character Hughie is also never seen. Fun fact.

Performed by a fluid, open cast of five, Blind Alley Guy is presented with extreme theatricality, exaggerated movement, and clownish exteriors. The gorgeously collaborative team is not playing the play, but rather the circumstances around the play's creation, which, to be honest, is endlessly more fascinating.
The notes are voiced aloud and occasionally projected, dialogue is spoken, and edits are acknowledged. At times the ominous scribbling of a weary pen hovers over the stage, reminding the audience of who the real main character is.

What admittedly shocked me about O'Neill's notes as written was the author's paranoia and obsession with Adolph Hitler. He makes all-too-frequent allusions to World War II, and even suggests that certain characters embody traits of Hitler. O'Neill was writing during the war, so the connection would seem logical. But he never really wrote about topical occurrences with any sort of specificity prior to this. O'Neill, like many early American playwrights, thematically focused on the domestic crumbling of the American dream - Families ripped to shreds by alcoholism, disease, poverty, sex, and each other. With Blind Alley Guy, it appears that the outside world might be a prominent factor, or at least a parallel to the goings-on inside of this household.

The ensemble of actors is giving and strong. Gelb's directorial hand is rendered mostly opaque by their unwavering commitment to his...or to their...choices. Elizabeth Alderfer's Dora has a smile that reeks of anguish and tragedy. Daniel Allen Nelson as Tess lends a ghostly ambiance to the stage particularly because he eerily resembles Eugene O'Neill. Nelson also naturally exudes the essence and attitude of all of O'Neill's maternal creations. Eat your heart out, Katherine Hepburn. Joshua Isaacs, Josh Wynn, and Justin Nestor layer the stage with palpable "J" and an nontraditional underdog scrappiness that is both silly and refreshingly human.

The sound design by director/conceiver Gelb is artistically cohesive, but technically fraught. Pieces of narration were often overpowered by other more dominant sound effects, and words the actors were speaking were occasionally lost. I do believe that this was at times a conscious choice, but not always. I certainly felt O'Neill's frustration as I was clamoring to catch all of the quick-moving details. This production really is a guidepost for audience frustration as a useful (and underrated) theatrical device.

Calvin Johnson's lighting frenetically pulses, serving the action with excitement and supporting the performers with haunting humor. The stark lighting of the various American flags hanging around the stage was startling.

Josh Ethan Smith's scenic design confidently evokes the rugged, yet idyllic environment in which Eugene O'Neill spent so much of his life - sea side Connecticut. O'Neill was outspokenly critical of his upbringing in his plays, while still strangely nostalgic for it. The set provides the actors with a risky, unsafe playground of splintery, wooden pillars, a solid, unforgiving floor, and three immaculate rocking chairs. The rocking chairs serve many purposes throughout the play, but I saw them as the quintessential image of a writer's uncontrollable procrastination. For example, I have rocked back and forth in my chair, staring, loose-jawed at the ceiling at least ten separate times since I started writing this...sentence.

Confusing, divisive theatre experiences are frightening - occasionally for the audience; always for the creative team. With so many theatregoers looking for answers rather than begging for questions, productions that challenge perception and leave some knots untied are extremely rare and deserving of our attention. Blind Alley Guy: An Unfinished Play by Eugene O'Neill asks questions and confuses with great skill. It was a joyous communal experience figuring out silently with the rest of the audience if we were allowed to laugh at what presumably were jokes. Most decided not to, while I stuck to my usual throaty chortle.

While Blind Alley Guy narrowly walks the line of intrigue versus entertainment, I was nevertheless left with an inexplicable, nondescript sense of bodily and mental satisfaction. Perhaps it comes from knowing that I am one metaphorical millimeter closer to understanding a genius.

'Blind Alley Guy: Notes On An Unfinished Play' by Eugene O'Neill plays St. Mark's Church through July 2

*Note: This critic donated $5 to this production prior to its New York transfer, making him...a junior producer or something.