“The Hairy Ape” Is O’Neill’s Reflection On Class Divide

Brilliant revival of 1920s play evokes workers‘ alienation

By Lucy Komisar

Director Ciar¡n O‘Reilly has finely staged – sometimes choreographed — an emotionally and aesthetically powerful production of “The Hairy Ape,” Eugene O‘Neill‘s 1922 drama about class and alienation. Especially if you‘ve never watched it performed, this is a version to see.

Yank (brilliantly played by Greg Derelian), heads a crew of stokers who shovel coal into the furnace of an ocean liner. He is persuaded that he does a job of significance, insisting, “I belong.” He identifies with the engines he feeds.

But the British radical, Long (the excellent David Lansbury), is trying to raise his consciousness, declaiming that the “lazy, bloated swine what travels first cabin ….dragged us down ‘til we‘re on‘y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin‘, burnin‘ up, eatin‘ coal dust! Hit‘s them‘s ter blame”the damned capitalist clarss!” And that begins to stir Yank‘s doubts.

The ship‘s hold where the crew bunks, created with lush imagination by designer Eugene Lee, envelops one in its noise and grime. Yank hunches over because the ceilings are – symbolically — too low for him to stand as a man. As he moves with frenetic energy, his muscular arms swing in a simian way.

Contrasting that view is the upper deck where Mildred (an insouciant Kerry Bishé), the lithe, white-lace-clad daughter of the steel mill titan, verbally scuffles with her aunt (the mortally annoyed Delphi Harrington) and insists on going below deck to “see how the other half lives.”

Her shock and horror at the sight of Yank reveals to him how he‘s viewed by the powerful people of society and upends his sense of his own worth. His desire to get even takes him on a journey that brings only confusion – on Fifth Avenue where the wealthy virtually see through him, in jail where he imbibes a political anger he can‘t translate, at the headquarters of the Wobblies (IWW: the Industrial Workers of the World), whose vision is more sophisticated than his simple desire for revenge.

Derelian expertly channels the fury of the hulking man who realizes he is viewed virtually as a beast. He deserves a Drama Desk nomination for his performance.

The vignettes of Yank‘s journey are artfully set off by the mournful riffs of jazz horns. Designer Lee creates seven evocative scene changes. This Irish Repertory production is Broadway quality.

“The Hairy Ape,” Written by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Ciar¡n O‘Reilly. Starring Kerry Bishé, Jason Denuszek, Gregory Derelian, Jerry Finnigan, Delphi Harrington, David Lansbury, Jon Levenson, Allen McCullough, Michael Mellamphy, Kevin O‘Donnell. Sets by Eugene Lee.

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22 St. Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 3pm. $50 – $55. Through Nov. 19, 2006. 212-727-2737. http://www.irishrep.org. The text.

Photos by Carol Rosegg.

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