Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Hairy Ape: An Intimate Spectacular

As I settled into my seat, already excited by the scale of the Park Ave Armory and the bright yellow seats, I heard a man to my right say to his friend, “You know, it’s not a good play, right? It is a series of dated and disjointed scenes about man versus machine.” With those words echoing in the evening The Hairy Ape started.

Stokers Quarters
The lights creep up, the sound of the sea washes over you and a turntable envelops the seating, bring a ribbon of stage into view. We are in the belly of a steamship watching the coal stokers on break. It is a varied group of men, different nationalities, but all alike in their thirst, raucousness and cloaked in coal dust. Most of them rail against the heat and work. One argues against a capitalist system that has demeaned them. And then there is Yank, the biggest and strongest both physically and in personality. Given life by Bobby Cannavale, Yank is enthralled by the machine that the ship is. He knows he is a key part of the engine; belonging to the ship and as part of the engine of mankind.  He is key ingredient moving civilization forward into the mechanized future.
Engine Room Sokers from The Hairy Ape top: David Costabile, center bottom: Bobby Cannavale
As the lives below deck swirl away in a fog of coal dust and engine noise, we are introduced to Mildred Douglas, daughter of a steel tycoon and the ship’s owner. Mildred is youthfully determined to upset her rich family, and the easiest way of doing that is to work with the poor. Catherine Combs is a daughter of the patriarchy, determined to work for the interests of the lower classes.
Mildred demands to see the engine rooms and the plight of the men down there. But events conspire. She sees the stokers just as Yank is in full throated rebellion to the engineers and he whirls upon her, scaring her just as the sight of her white dressed ghostly visage frightens him. She faints at the site of him and leaves Yank shaken and embarrassed. His embarrassment is compounded by Paddy (wonderfully acted by David Costabile), who informs Yank that the beautiful woman didn’t even see Yank as a man, but as a ape – The Hairy Ape.

In the remaining scenes Yank tries to find the woman in white and pay her back for her rash judgment. But each step Yank takes pulls him farther from the norms of society, until he becomes the animal he thinks he was accused of being.
The themes of the common man as disposable are every bit as relevant now as they were almost 100 hundred years ago (The Hairy Ape was written in 1922). The disdain shown by the swells of Fifth Ave and the casual violence used by the police are on more obvious display in the piece, but feel quite familiar. The Hairy Ape is a striking and political play, but given an open and venerable heart by Bobby Cannavale.
The design by Stewart Laing is fantastic, transforming the Park Ave Armory into a grand playground, but claustrophobically keeping Yank confined to a minimal part of it. Yank can see that life is much more than he has, and more than he is allowed to dream of – and yet any step off his path is immediately punished. Director Richard Jones has taken The Hairy Ape into our age, forcing us to look at the dichotomies of wealth anew. In a country where we disdain labels for “classes” of people, The Hairy Ape tolerates no other view. It is beautiful, poetic and powerful.

The Hairy Ape | Playwright: Eugene O’Neill | Director: Richard Jones | Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Becky Ann Baker, David Costabile,  Chris Bannow, Tommy Bracco, Emmanuel Brown, Nicholas Bruder, Catherine Combs, Phil Hill, Cosmo Jarvis, Mark Junek, Henry Stram, Jamar Willains, Isaroa Wolfe, Amos Wolff

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