HUGHIE and BEFORE BREAKFAST
Gare St. Lazare Players
at the Royal-George Theatre
I wouldn't have thought it possible that these two Eugene O'Neill one-acts could be performed so dynamically as monologues, but stripped of all the usual trappings of realism, including scenery and props, and even without minor characters, the language speaks eloquently for itself. Not by itself. That takes actors, like Cynthia Caponera and Bob Meyer (who also directs). I'd call their performances riveting, but that adjective has a staccato ring and an industrial bluntness that doesn't reflect the way Caponera graces her role and Meyer forges his. A noun would be more appropriate; this acting culminates in an effect, rather than simply displaying qualities. Somebody once defined acting for me as shaping one's identity through rapture. Rapture is the word.
If you're familiar with the play Before Breakfast, then you know that it consists of an early-morning tirade delivered by one Mrs. Rowland to her lazy, drunken, unemployed, unfaithful husband, who remains offstage during the entire play, never once responding to her taunts. In the end, much to Mrs. Rowland's surprise, the husband kills himself. But in this production, there's no offstage bumping and groaning, and Mrs. Rowland doesn't run "shrieking madly into the outer hallway" at the end. She just sits there as the silence and darkness close in around her.
The suicide itself becomes ambiguous, barely implied, almost edited out of the play. Without it, the play focuses all the more tightly on the wife's situation. Indeed, the whole notion of a climactic suicide seems like a melodramatic gimmick compared to the more compelling dramatic tension created by the wife's need to fill the silence in her marriage. It even occurred to me that the husband was long gone, and that the wife was, like the actor portraying her, all alone. This is audacious directing on Bob Meyer's part--attempting to improve on O'Neill--but he gets away with it. I'm reminded of the initial production of Harvey: it wasn't working out so well until someone suggested cutting the role of the guy in the big rabbit suit.
The effect of this stripped-down Before Breakfast is hair-raising--on my forearms anyway. The play ends as it begins, with Mrs. Rowland calling, "Alfred. Alfred," and tapping her foot on the floor to a slow beat. Initially, Caponera's performance struck me as unnecessarily stilted. She races breathlessly through the long sentences, then unpredictably she emphasizes a word like "Shave!" and laughs maliciously. Or she hits two or three words in a row, individually, like a ball bouncing down the stairs. Her eyes dart to stage right now and then, as if in fear, but more like she's looking away, or inward, rather than at something. And her hands, poised on top of the man's coat lying on her lap, pick away at nothing, until she notices it and stops. Stilted or not, the tension rhythmically accumulates and becomes very, very real.
Under Meyer's direction, Caponera does more than simply shift the dramatic focus from the husband's suicide to the wife's isolation. She also manages to shear all the potential bitchiness from her monologue, largely because there's no husband in the wings to be worn down by her complaints. So she wears herself down. She pushes herself to the edge, and that edge is palpable, inescapable, and strangely horrifying. The curtain call doesn't dispel this feeling. It cleaves metallically to the roof of your mouth.
The setting for Hughie is a completely empty stage. As O'Neill would have it, in his interminable stage directions, this is the lobby of a seedy Manhattan hotel where Erie Smith, "small fry gambler and horse player," meets the new night clerk. In this production there's no night clerk, just an occasional ghostly pause where the clerk's lines used to be. Yet once again, the omission of this minor character works to the production's advantage. After all, the night clerk isn't all that important; it's who the night clerk reminds Erie of.
That would be Hughie, the former night clerk, who recently died. According to Erie, Hughie was a sucker, trapped in a dull marriage that drained the life out of him. For Erie, Hughie was a chance to show off, to embroider on his exploits, and, in return, Erie breathed some life into Hughie. But now Hughie's dead and Erie's starting to come apart at the seams.
Bob Meyer plays Erie--on Wednesday and Saturday nights anyway. (Bob Kohut and Jim Ortlieb also alternate in the role.) Meyer's performance is in a more realistic vein than Caponera's, and possessed of greater certitude and subtlety. As a character, Erie is more driven, perhaps only a half-step ahead of his impending disintegration. At first, Meyer projects the image of a self-amused sharpie, tickled to be one of the few guys in on the great joke of life. Yet, progressively, Erie's laughter wears thin and nervous, and his speech is slashed by pauses and nagging preoccupations. What will he do when there are no more suckers around to believe him, not even himself?
Erie's disintegration is marked by gestures, restless pacing, and a speed rap that catches up with him and trips him. Some gestures repeat like tics (he fiddles with his double-breasted jacket, unconsciously covering his crotch) and some gestures are used only once (a sudden, sideways jerk of the head, accompanied by a minute squaring of the shoulders). But each gesture, each nervous, pacing step comes off as an almost out-of-control maneuver by a man who is frenetically, but surely, cornering himself. Meanwhile, Erie talks himself through the crisis. It's what he does best. This is where Meyer captures the elusive lyric beauty of O'Neill's dialogue. Some lines are like poems, sudden rocks in a stream of language.
Meyer's performance is enveloping. Since the audience plays the role of the night clerk, we're the ones who remind Erie of Hughie, and it's to us that Erie directs his lies, justifications, and veiled cries for support. Of course we don't know our lines, but there's nothing we could say to help him anyway. Captivating is too cornball and overused a word to describe this show, but somehow, in the sentiment-proof bond that Meyer forges with his audience, it's hard to tell who is more captive by the end of Hughie--Erie or us.
If I were you, I'd check this show out. It's a work of art, of rapture. It's the difference between listening to some secondhand malarkey--which would be more illuminating if you read the script in the privacy of your own home--and the triumphant feeling of "I was there."