Theatre Review: The Hairy Ape


The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Richard Jones at The Park Avenue Armory
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
April 1, 2017 

Gamestop, the preeminent video game store chain, put up a loss in earnings this past quarter of 11% and forecasts a dim profit outlook. Shares of the company are down approximately 25% over the past year. Why this column is leading with statistics about video games when according to the headline it was supposed to be a theater review of a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, at the unusual location of the Park Avenue Amory in New York City, will be explained in a moment. This account will also involve my taking along my 17-year-old son to the show, starring Bobby Cannavale, scheduled to run until April 22. Stay with me. 

If you check statistics (and your eyes and ears), it is apparent that young men are fading in influence and involvement in US society, a country increasingly devoted to promoting the interests and successes of women, young and old. According to the New York Times, “men of all races and ethnicities are abusing opioids and falling behind women in both college attendance and graduation rates.” 

And: “More than a fifth of American men — about 20 million people — between 20 and 65 had no paid work last year (2015)…” Things are particularly bad for young men without a college education: “Seven million men between 25 and 55 are no longer even looking for work, a third of men between 25 and 54 without college educations could be out of work by midcentury…” There’s more, but you get the point.  US Big Culture, cravenly following the money, is slowly but surely turning its back on young men. While it is generally assumed that adolescent and teenaged guys rule the movie business, causing super-hero action films to dominate multiplexes, in reality, young male attendance at the movies has been diminishing for years and the studios are turning their attention to female-driven projects, such as the hit Beauty and The Beast and the upcoming Wonder Woman. TV ratings for sports, including football, are falling, and once impervious ESPN has been firing on and off camera personnel, perplexedly searching for ways to bring back earnings. Young men don’t read or buy enough books, so YA novels are heavily geared to girls. The cable network Spike, created to appeal to young men, lost big and just became defunct, changing its name to Paramount TV and desperately developing shows that attract women. 

To clarify the info about Gamestop, a company initially vastly popular among young men, its losses are partially caused by the increase in the downloading of video games, harming the “brick and mortar” side of the business, meaning Gamestop is closing stores. But even though video games are still a multi-billion dollar concern, the reduction in earnings of young men can only cause us (and shareholders) to assume the glory days are over. 

Theater, where three quarters of the audience have long been women and girls, basically gave up on boys and men years ago, despite occasional, usually failed attempts to win them back. The Lightning Thief, a musical based on the Percy Jackson adventure books is the latest try, just starting off-Broadway, with hopes to move to a larger venue. My son, a bright physically gifted fellow (three teams: wrestling, soccer & lacrosse), who, bored with the usual academia, now attends an auto-tech trade program as a senior in high school, dislikes theater and has seen five or six stage shows in his whole life, some made compulsory by school trips (the musical Sister Act, twice in two separate camp outings!)  But when I heard about the transfer of gritty The Hairy Ape from England’s respected Old Vic theater, directed by innovative Richard Jones (La Bete on Broadway, many shows for the National Theatre and RSC), done at the intriguing, cool setting of The Armory, and featuring Cannavale, star of HBO’s Vinyl, one of my son’s favorite shows—he, and likely other young men, got into its story lines of sex and drug use in the 1970s music business, so, of course, it was quickly cancelled—I decided to get tickets for both of us and force him to accompany me.

We went to the colossal red-brick Armory, located in non-theater mid-town Manhattan east, built between 1877-81, and according to the play program, said by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee to have “the single most important collection of nineteenth century interiors in one building.” The Armory, no longer a military facility, is now a multi-use non-traditional performing space; in the upstairs rooms, there are education programs and recitals. The play is staged in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, a vast wide open 55,000 sq. ft. area without pillars, containing a roof 80 feet high, “one of the largest unobstructed spaces in New York City.” 

Director Jones and designer Stewart Laing brought their show from England and recast it, imaginatively and painstakingly using the entire Hall to tell the realistic/surrealistic story of Ape’s lead Yank, a coarse, uneducated 1920s boiler room stoker disrespected by the modern industrialized state. Most of the action is placed on a conveyor belt, which shifts and rotates with each scene. The main locale is the yellow horizontal box of the steamer boiler room, where Yank and his rough-hewn co-workers load coal; these men are mercilessly overworked by their wealthy bosses, existing one level above the status of slaves. As Yank leaves the boat and heads into the booming city, the Armory’s enormous back wall becomes an urban mansion, the floor space a dance hall for spoiled rich wastrel society types, and the steel business, Yank’s employer, is represented by expansive block letters STEEL on the moving belt and construction beams descending from the ceiling. There are constant amazing sights, such as a huge balloon representing the Man in the Moon, Yank’s mental picture of this new confusing, infuriating cosmopolitan land and his own alienated place in it. As actors step off the belt and retreat into the room’s cavernous space, heading to the back wall, they become like ants to the audience, placed on semi-circular ascending stadium seating. 

While Bobby Cannavale, who previously scored on Broadway in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker With The Hat and Odets’s The Big Knife, is not the brawny brutish type such as William Bendix of the 1944 movie version, or Louis Wolheim, star of the original 1922 play (an actor best known now for the classic 1930 movie version of All Quiet On The Western Front), he carries off the truly difficult task of convincing us he is the tough, vigorous, and imposing, verbally and emotionally restricted Yank. He and his inordinately skilled and devoted ensemble of fellow actors, work themselves to the bone to bring this nearly century-old play to electric life. Stand-outs include David Constabile as veteran stoker Paddy, Henry Stram doubling as a stoker and a unionist, and Cosmo Jarvis, as a prisoner in the same jailhouse with Yank after he is arrested during his city journey. With his vocal variety and physical abandon, Jarvis, listed as an “English-American” in the program, is another one of these great unknown actors you run across in NYC shows from time to time. But the whole cast, sometimes hidden behind supernatural death masks as High Society Swells, does remarkable work. 

When it premiered in 1922, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape was risky and new; its smart, cracked attack on the growing separation between the “ownership class” and men who toil to make their products, its mix of naturalism and expressionism, knocked the critics and audience off their cushioned chairs, helping to launch the former seaman from a small theater purist ideologue to a decades-long career as a revered mainstream dramatist. Its story of a man faced with his own ill-use by both sides in a class struggle is boldly humorous, bluntly violent, and poignant, what could be billed as an Absurdist Tragedy. Scenes of Yank trying fervently to join the Wobblies, only to be rebuffed by suspicious, pretentious unionists, and the phony feminism of Mildred Douglas (committedly portrayed by Catherine Combs), daughter of the steel magnate who owns Yank’s ship, an arrogant young woman who decides to work with the stokers below only to immediately withdraw, appalled and disgusted when she sees the reality of Yank and his buddies, show the philosophical non-partisan hatred and ridicule that lifts O’Neill’s play—as well as keeping it brazenly descending—to an exploration of the fundamental war between the contradictory parts of a man’s being.    

This conflict was a hot topic in the fertile years of American creativity before and after World War I. Theodore Dreiser wrote in Sister Carrie (1900) : “Our civilisation is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct, scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason… In this intermediate stage he wavers—neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free will.” The Hairy Ape finishes with a confrontation between Yank and a caged gorilla (astoundingly performed by Phil Hill in full animal regalia in the Armory show). Even though Yank has been called an ape by Mildred, a personal, sexual slight that propels the stoker into his city search for vengeance and validation, his plea for communion with the real deal—epitomized by Yank/Cannavale’s painfully touching attempt to “Shake!” with the beast—also fails, and he is rejected and attacked here, too. 

But in the 1920s, at least there were jobs a plenty for physically stalwart men, places to create and achieve. Today, in the soft 21st, cravenly acceding to outsourcing and automation, a young man only has his internal sense of assertion to carry him, and, with no outlet, this forcefulness mostly takes him…in circles. Nicholas Eberstadt, author of the recent book Men Without Work said it’s now ”a viable option” for “sturdy men” to choose “to sit on the economic sidelines, living off the toil or bounty of others.” Eberstadt told NPR in February:  “What they do is they spend an awful lot of their day watching, whether it’s TV or internet or handheld devices or whatever.” Gamestop, after all, just sells games that keep men sitting and pushing buttons, watching a fantasy on a little screen; doing, making nothing.    

In our contemporary world, The Hairy Ape comes across as a consideration of qualities that have become unloved, the unconstrained, individualistically rebellious, hungry, physically adept maleness, that with respect, understanding, and cultivation, can still innovate and make for great achievement, but only receiving apathy and condescension, can turn destructive to others or itself, or further, hated, repressed and tamped down, dry up and die.     

My son’s response? After, as the play began, I paid him $5 to turn his phone completely off? He sat through The Hairy Ape’s ninety minutes engrossed. He pronounced the antics of the debauched upscale revelers “fucking hilarious”—particularly a moment when a high roller woos a woman after taking a drunken face-plant—and when I asked him what the show was about, said thoughtfully about Yank: “He didn’t fit in.” I can’t be sure what the artists intended, but my take: the show was for my son, all our sons. To this landmark revival, that uses phenomenal theatricality to express both dreamlike, bitter farce, and very real tragedy, a lament that something genuine and essential is being depreciated and cast out: Thanks. 

Sources: New York Times; Marketwatch; Forbes; National Review; Commentary; NPR; Park Ave. Armory website; Sister Carrie; Men Without Work; Wikipedia 

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival.

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The Hairy Ape at the Armory