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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Park Avenue Armory


  Bobby Cannavale and company/ Ph: Stephanie Berger

What a perfect time to revive Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist drama The Hairy Ape. When blue-collar labor is being marginalized in the U.S., and Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat wins the Pulitzer Prize for examining the plight of working-class Americans, London’s Old Vic brings a brutal, beautifully staged revival to the colossal space at the Park Avenue Armory, showing that the cost of labor for those at the bottom of the economic ladder has always been high.
O’Neill’s observations of the dehumanizing effect of industrialization are brought to life by the ferocious performance of Bobby Cannavale as Yank, a stoker on an ocean liner who has never questioned his place in the world. As one of the men who shovel coal to make the ship’s engine run, he’s a strong, supremely confident leader who believes he and his colleagues are the lifeblood of the ship – until a visit from the daughter of a steel magnate upends his world.
Sailing to Europe with a desire to help the poor, beautiful young Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs) decides to visit the men in the stokehold. When she comes face to face with Yank, shovel raised and covered in soot, she screams and calls him a “filthy beast,” sending Yank into an identity crisis and on a quest, initially for revenge, but also for a sense of where he belongs.
That journey takes him from Manhattan’s tony Fifth Avenue all the way to the zoo, with stops in jail and at a union office, but no sense of a place where he belongs. O’Neill’s artful look at the lack of hope for the laborer comes vibrantly alive in Richard Jones’ staging, which, at a tight 90 minutes, heightens the expressionist elements.
Designer Stewart Laing frames the stokers in a giant yellow container in which they are a kind of caged animal. The various set pieces revolve on a turntable that circles the audience. (“Backstage” appears to be somewhere under the bleachers.) And Jones places members of his 15-person cast in every part of the historic armory, which dates back to the 19th century and is perfectly suited to the era.
But what really makes this play come alive is Cannavale’s electric performance. Whether he’s shoveling coal, hanging from rafters or trying to contain his explosive temper, his Yank is a powerful force brought down by an indifferent world. How little things have changed in 95 years.


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