The Hairy Ape, The Pajama Game, In and Of Itself
By Myron Meisel
Eugene O’Neill’s Occupy Wall Street Saga
Class warfare has surged and ebbed in the U.S. public consciousness during harder or more prosperous times throughout the past century, but the distorted perversion that it is something waged by the poor upon privileged victims gets exposed as a disingenuous lie by Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 The Hairy Ape – an anguished cry on behalf the exploited and dismissed. The play is being presented at the Odyssey Theatre in a rare revival, directed by one of Britain’s still-angry old men, Steven Berkoff (Greek, Kvetch).
By serendipitous contrast, the succeeding night I again encountered the conflict between labor and management in a wildly disparate context, Musical Theatre Guild’s whipped-up one-night- stand of the 1955 smash Broadway musical, The Pajama Game — the final show of its 20th season. Both shows’ politics and elemental dramatics have aged considerably, although as period pieces their pertinence persists in stimulating ways, each in their radically distinct forms.
In The Hairy Ape, Yank (the excellent Haile D’Alan, in a daring stroke of casting, given the aggravating overlay of racial overtones in the title’s obliterating denigration) is the alpha male in the boiler room of an ocean liner, a cauldron of physically brutal camaraderie as fueled by testosterone as the furnace is fueled by filthy coal. Self-awareness here may be sorely circumscribed, but it benefits from clear definition. The men embrace their back-breaking work for the honesty by which it validates their masculinity.
A spanner get thrown in the works when a pampered, do-gooder passenger, Mildred Douglas (Katy Davis), pulls rank to pressure the purser to accompany her to visit the sweaty, underworld inferno, which hysterically unnerves her delicate sensibility, moving her in panicked shock to scream the title epithet at Yank for his crude, brutish manner.
Yank can take anything the job or his fellow lads can dish out, whether with bumptious or violent aggression, king of the stokehole, yet his fury at this insult from an entitled female swell utterly undermines his swaggering sense of self. He undertakes revenge for this existential slight, first contemptuously cruising Fifth Avenue in wonderment at the effete upper classes, then volunteering for terrorist duty at the local chapter of the International Workers of the World (IWW, aka the Wobblies), where he’s unceremoniously ejected as an agent provocateur.
Outside his natural realm, the instinctive Yank, whose identity is so obscure to him that he can barely remember his given name, proves ineffectual at purging the stain of his disparagement by asserting his bestial mastery, so dubious outside the workplace. Finally, at the Zoo, he confronts the very embodiment of his debased image in a caged gorilla (a persuasive Jeremiah O’Brien), with whom he disastrously identifies. In attempting to symbolically free himself, Yank unsurprisingly and pathetically proves that as a Man, he is not in fact a Beast.
Relatively early O’Neill (just post-Anna Christie), The Hairy Ape proves predictably clumsy both in structure and expression. O’Neill had first-hand experience of the world he depicts, and he is at pains to render the working-class argot of the era authentically, though the archaic phrases often sound forced, for the all the careful consistency of tone. Despite his prowess as a playwright, O’Neill never displayed much facility for poetry, and here he makes no effort at psychological depth, preferring archetypes to illustrate ideas.
Less evidently under his root influence of Strindberg, O’Neill attempts mightily to assimilate then avant-garde Expressionist and Symbolist styles into an American idiom and a politically radical advocacy. He struggles to marshal his aspirations into a coherent discourse and ends up with passages of undeniable power, occasional glints of originality, and determined daring compromised by undisguised laboriousness. To the extent The Hairy Ape achieves any soupcon of universality, it is inextricably yoked to innovations that tether it relentlessly to its specific period of creation.
Berkoff and his extraordinarly cohesive ensemble realize a physically expressive movement vocabulary that gives a modern sheen to the antique abstractions, so much so that in the opening scene I thought of the biblical turn-of-phrase that the hands may be those of O’Neill, but the voice sounds uncannily like Berkoff’s. (Curious to observe that not a single cast member, least of all D’Alan, boasts a hirsuite chest.) And the unadulterated class hatred that characterizes the author’s disdain for shallow Mildred and her even more awful, patronizing aunt, as well as the other glimpsed creatures of inherited status, are impossible to approach as anything but objects to abominate, although Berkoff presumably has less concern about that problem than more earnestly humanizing directors might, instead staying true to the harsh schematics of the original intent.
Nothing will, nor should, transform The Hairy Ape into a well-made play, as its flaws are so inseparable from its virtues that the feelings of intense sincerity and unrealized ambition just extract from the drama a more nakedly personal revelation, keeping us mindful of its inexorable ties to the more accomplished O’Neill, who never takes the easy way out, whether or not he manages to get where he’s going.
Certainly as an experimental novelty when first produced, and with the unsurpassable casting of Louis Wolheim in the lead, The Hairy Ape was recognized as innovative and original. That’s still discernible, yet measuring its take on class struggle by perceptions of nearly a century later offers insight into our contemporary angst on the same issues of economic and social injustice.
Sticking to the Pajama Union
And now for something completely different, though not entirely. The Pajama Game trivializes a contract negotiation for a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, factory. The pajama union is seeking a 7.5 cent hourly raise to bring them to parity with other nightie manufacturers. This provides the pretext for the romantic conflict between the new trouble-shooting manager from Chicago, Sid Sarokin (Damon Kirsche), and the chair of the grievance committee, Babe Williams (Shannon Warne).
Musical Theatre Guild presents relatively unproduced musicals, which it produces under an obscure Equity provision for staged readings involving less than 24 hours rehearsal. That means everyone is more or less on book, though usually (and especially in the case of The Pajama Game), the songs can be well-known, while the books are nearly entirely forgotten, often with good reason.
For a great musical, the book of The Pajama Game has aged badly, as if a musty monster emerged from the ingrained and unaware cesspool of sexism of the mid-1950s. The way the lovers meet cute occurs when Sid shoves a slacking employee to the floor, and Babe leads the investigating delegation of working girls, who promptly agree that the victim’s inflated claims of being punched were out of line, while Sid “compliments” the committee on how good-looking they all are.
With the exception of Babe’s railroading Pop, every male in the musical manifests unremitting dickishness, meant to be admirably authoritative or endearingly charming. It’s like Mad Men in an unglamorously uncool environment unseen through the moderating, ironic lens of a retrospective viewpoint, baldly nonconforming to today’s perceptions of decency, equality and respect.
If one can stomach all that in the name of period accuracy (at least in prevailing norms of mass entertainment), there’s actually a delightful time to be had, because once everyone commences to sing and dance, The Pajama Game transcends its crass antiquity with fabulous numbers, for which the MTG troupe excels in this glorious, nearly-lost idiom. Such extraordinary standards: “Hey There,” “There Once Was a Man,” “Small Talk,” “Once a Year Day” and the immortal “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway,” were all penned by the ill-fated songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. This show ran 2-1/2 years and over 1000 performances, and the next season they wrote Damn Yankees, which lasted just as long. But Ross died at 29 while both shows were still on Broadway, and though Adler remained in the theater, he remained musically unproductive.
Okay, most of these songs are derivative of earlier, even better shows – “Steam Heat” opens the second act exactly as Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” did in Kiss Me Kate, “Once a Year Day” functions identically to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair,” which itself echoed “A Real Nice Clambake.” On the other hand, The Pajama Game (as Tom Hatten points out in his customarily useful program notes), was uniquely the work of Broadway neophytes (apart from the tutelage of George Abbott, the ultimate embodiment of experience): first producing credits for Hal Prince and Fred Brisson, first choreography credit for Bob Fosse, and first score by Adler and Ross, so some caution can be forgiven.
Notwithstanding a reduced orchestra under the skillful Corey Hirsch, every number went over exactly as it ought, a tribute to MTG’s deep talent bench (chorine Jennifer Shelton, e.g., long ago established her bona fide star quality), to director Lewis Wilkenfeld, soon to depart as artistic director of the Cabrillo Music Theatre and perhaps the most consistent of MTG’s stable (his socko Allegro in 2002 rehabilitated that forgotten work); and choreographer Daniel Smith, who manages to eke out a simplified version of Fosse-like moves as if a distilled essence of the style.
Kirsche and Warne sing splendidly, and the indefatigable Jason Graae channels his inner Eddie Foy (is every vintage comic hiding there somewhere?) with crack clowning. Best of all, Leslie Stevens proves that the soubrette role of Gladys, however confoundingly written, has scene-stealing star-making woven into its entire genetic makeup, demonstrating beyond doubt why Carol Haney won a Tony for the part, as well as why understudy Shirley MacLaine scored the Hollywood contract the night she went on with Hal Wallis in the audience.
Where’s the Magic?
Derek DelGaudio, a young magician whose 2012 joint show with Helder Guimaraes, Nothing To Hide, set box office records for the Audrey Skirball Kenis space at The Geffen Playhouse, has returned with a solo act, In and Of Itself, that owes far more to his fascination for performance art than with the practice of prestidigition (magic). This superficially ambitious and innovative enterprise may be a mite stingy on the magic and malnourished as conceptual art.
DelGaudio tells an allusive shaggy dog tale of Russian Roulette-playing Spaniards, reveals suggestions of a fraught upbringing, poses quasi-existential questions of slight heft and engages in the sort of elaborately extended Andy Kaufman-descended posturings that comprise a great deal of set-up with precious little development and no payoff. Interspersed between these exercises in avoidance-of-meaning (as opposed to, say, meaninglessness), he exhibits impressive card sleights and an epic mentalist routine that overstays its durability by a substantial margin.
His affectless manner may comport with a modern diffidence, but the leaching of showmanship from a magic show rarely improves it. I can well understand the desire to extend the art into a newer, more relevant, context – indeed, into any context at all – as a prospective improvement over a venerable, beloved and hidebound tradition, but Penn and Teller have shone the light into this direction for decades now, and indications are that many magicians are innovating their acts in original directions. Nothing to Hide frankly hides too much. Despite the collaborations of established pros like director Frank Oz and composer Mark Mothersbaugh conferring borrowed credibility, the show propounds little mystery and unfolds far too much like an out-of-town shakedown unready for sophisticated scrutiny.
The Hairy Ape, The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-2055, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pajama Game, Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre, Glendale (closed). Running time: Two hours, forty minutes (with intermission).
In and Of Itself, The Geffen Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, 310.208.5454 www.geffenplayhouse.com, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 & 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 & 7 p.m., through July 10. Running time: One hour, twelve minutes.