Dominated by a feeling of panicked confinement, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, first performed in 1922, is a ninety-minute claustrophobic attack: There’s almost no fresh air in it. Instead, much of the story unfolds in a series of hot, cramped spaces — the stokehole of a ship, a jail cell, a gorilla’s cage at the zoo.
In Richard Jones’s muscular, visually astonishing production (previously staged in London), the director lines up these steel traps along a conveyor belt that moves from left to right, so that the action scrolls past the audience, who are stacked onto sports-stadium risers on one side of the Park Avenue Armory’s cavernous interior. Surrounded by that foggy black immensity (the lighting design is by Mimi Jordan Sherin), Stewart Laing’s tightly confined metallic sets fence in rough-and-tumble lives to which the universe seems coldly indifferent.
At least, that’s how things shake out for the play’s antihero, Yank (a perfectly cast Bobby Cannavale). As one of the men who shovels coal into the furnace to keep the ship running, Yank asserts that he’s the engine powering capitalism. Two members of his rowdy crew — a woke socialist (Chris Bannow) and a sardonic Irishman (David Costabile) — try to tell him he’s actually enslaved to the powers that be, but Yank dismisses that as bunk. O’Neill spends the rest of the play puncturing his illusions.
The trouble starts when a bratty first-class passenger (Catherine Combs) visits the stokehole on a lark and recoils in horror at the sight of a sooty, raging Yank, calling him a “filthy beast.” For the first time, Yank sees himself as members of the ruling elite see him — not an essential piece of the mechanism, but something subhuman.
Once the ship docks in New York, the newly self-conscious Yank sets off on a mission to regain his place in the scheme of things. But he’s brutalized by cops, met with icy disdain by white-masked muckety-mucks on Fifth Avenue, and even turned away by egghead union organizers. Finally embracing his animal side, he befriends a caged gorilla; things go about as well as in King Kong’s dalliance with Fay Wray (though here it’s the ape that survives).
In keeping with O’Neill’s stage directions, Jones avoids naturalism for a stylized mix of outsize emotions and daring spectacle, filling his rolling dioramas with mechanized movement and eerie splashes of bright yellow. At various points, there are wild revelers dancing the Charleston, disembodied voices taunting Yank, and hooting stokers rattling bars and swinging from rafters. These bold gestures help the production transcend what seems at first a simple agitprop premise, becoming something unruly and unreal.
The searching, restless fury in Cannavale’s knockabout performance likewise pushes the production past an exercise in raising class consciousness. Ultimately, his Yank arrives at the harrowing conclusion that to think is to suffer. “Where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?” he howls, and we sense that collective bargaining alone isn’t going to remove all that pain and pathos. Aided by O’Neill’s relentless truth-telling and Jones’s sense of scale and gritty visual poetry, Yank’s hopeless struggle comes off as a Job-like plight of unusual urgency.
The Hairy Ape
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
Through April 22