A lust for sex and a lust for real estate are familiar passions to many, notwithstanding the plummeting co-op market and those libido-dampening Dow numbers. But these primal drives take on an eerie, entrancing strangeness in the gutsy revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” that opened Monday night at the St. James Theater. Portraying a stepmother and stepson doomed to enact a feverish, erotic dance that will ultimately destroy them, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber fight like tigers in a cage over a legacy of land, even as their bodies cleave violently together, aflame with urgent need.
First seen at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where it was the centerpiece of a winter festival devoted to O’Neill, this visually spectacular production wraps his powerful but problematic 1924 play in a big bear hug, making no attempt to throw a blanket of soft naturalism over its sometimes glaring flaws. On the contrary, the director Robert Falls, who led the last Broadway revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” honors O’Neill’s ambition to transplant Greek tragedy to American soil by mounting the play on an epic scale, even adding a few expressionist touches of his own. (A recording by Bob Dylan is unexpectedly heard.)
Do not bother to scan the sky-high rock piles of Walt Spangler’s set for glimpses of the titular trees, however. Mr. Falls has eliminated them, allowing the close, coddling maternal symbolism they are meant to provide to go by the wayside. It is not much missed. “Desire Under the Elms” dates from what might be called O’Neill’s High Freudian phase, which would also include the trilogy “Mourning Becomes Electra” (a modern-day retelling of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”) and “Strange Interlude,” a long evening’s journey into the tortured heart of a neurotic named Nina.
Although the plot of “Desire” is drawn directly from Euripides’ “Hippolytus,” and O’Neill played down Freud’s influence, the Oedipal instinct is front and center in the psyche of the young Eben Cabot (Mr. Schreiber), who still mourns his mother’s death and bitterly blames his father, Ephraim (Brian Dennehy), for working her as hard as he works himself and his three sons on their New England farm. (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman play Eben’s brothers, loutish brutes who abandon the farm to pursue gold rush dreams in California.)
When Ephraim brings home a blushing rose of a new bride, Abbie (Ms. Gugino), Eben is enraged at the potential loss of his inheritance, until the hypnotic allure of his stepmother begins tearing down his emotional defenses.
The process is enacted with captivating magnetism by these two exciting actors. Rarely has sexual passion been depicted with such tense, animalistic ferocity on a Broadway stage. After a somewhat ponderous start, during which we have a little too much time to marinate in the stagy, countrified dialect O’Neill employs, the temperature rockets upward when Abbie and Eben meet and exchange a long glare in the farmhouse kitchen. Mr. Schreiber, with a backwoods face and beefcake body, radiates a febrile, simmering fury in a performance of taut intensity. From beneath a dark fringe of hair, Eben’s eyes glow with compulsion, recognizing in the delicate-seeming Abbie a formidable competitor, and scorning her as a “harlot” tarnishing the memory of his sacred mother.
Abbie’s approach is more accommodating. She has learned the harsh compromises life demands and made a cruel bargain by marrying the flinty, much older Ephraim. In Eben, her rival for the home she has finally found, she also instinctively sees a source of sexual and emotional consolation. Embracing the florid extremes of the role with a thrilling bravado, Ms. Gugino makes us see with painful clarity how these two conflicting desires corrode Abbie’s psyche so completely that they are finally blended into one consuming need to retain Eben’s love at all cost. It is a brave, luminous, ultimately haunting performance.
As the ornery Ephraim, proud of his independence but secretly longing for understanding, Mr. Dennehy has grown into the role since the Chicago run. His craggy face resembles a worn rock in which time and experience have etched hard lines, but Mr. Dennehy didn’t before seem to possess in his bones the grim, flinty spirit of the man. He does now, at least in fierce flashes. During the scene in which Ephraim exults in his new fatherhood — taunting Eben with the loss of his inheritance, unaware that his son has fathered Abbie’s child — Mr. Dennehy exudes the hungry malice of a jackal tearing away at a rodent.
“God’s hard, not easy,” Ephraim observes with a measure of satisfaction. The same could be said for many a second-tier O’Neill play. This great American playwright never shied from a dramatic challenge, even if he sensed that his talents might not be equal to the demands placed on them. His weaknesses are extravagantly apparent in “Desire Under the Elms.” The writing can be repetitive and painfully overexplicit, the attempts at poetry blunt and strained. Rather than achieving the grand synthesis of tragedy and humble domestic drama that O’Neill envisioned, the play sometimes comes across as melodrama overblown to mythic proportions.
And yet O’Neill wrote with a deep understanding of the destructive clash between the ferocity of human needs and the hard exigencies of life, and held a deep belief in the power of drama to imbue human experience — even the most sad or sordid — with a moving grandeur. With Ms. Gugino, Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Dennehy giving performances of unflagging commitment and exposed feeling, the production manages to transcend the play’s flaws to transmit the penetrating truth of O’Neill’s underlying vision, of the ineradicable human need to possess and be possessed.