Now I Ask You turns out to be a comedy of pretentious New York bohemians in 1916, while Recklessness is a Strindbergian psychological revenge play. While both have hints of the more famous plays to come, they also stand on their own as the work of a major playwright trying to find his own voice. Whatever you think of the plays and whichever one turns out to be your favorite, Alex Roe’s staging is always entertaining and the plays are truly surprising and unexpected.
O’Neill’s fourth surviving play, Recklessness, dates from 1913, and was published with four others the following year. Set in the Catskills home of wealthy Arthur Baldwin, his young wife Mildred awaits him on his mountain top mansion away from town. However, never having loved him but marrying him for his money, she had fallen in love with the young handsome chauffeur Fred during the two weeks her husband has been away. When Baldwin returns, he is told about the affair by a jealous maid who is smarting over the fact that Mildred has taken Fred away from her. Baldwin proceeds to plot his cold-blooded revenge.
Only 35 minutes, the play resembles a sped-up version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with a bit more melodrama. It is interesting to note how O’Neill will later use a similar triangle of an older man in a loveless marriage to a younger woman for one of his early realistic masterpieces, Desire under the Elms. Directed by Roe with an eye for intensity, Erin Beirnard is the suitably distraught wife, while Kelly King turns the husband into a ruthless portrait of vengeance. Jeremy Russial is intentionally callow as the ambitious chauffeur while Eden Epstein is overemotional as the jealous maid. Both plays are performed by the actors with an unsubtle fierceness in a venue in which the audience is only an arm’s length away. However, it is to the actors’ credit that they keep the tension rising throughout this short one-act.
It is usually said that O’Neill wrote only one comedy, the charming 1933 Ah, Wilderness! which is often revived. However, it turns out that in 1916 O’Neill wrote the delicious 90-minute satire, Now I Ask You, a parody of young bohemians who turn out to not really believe what they preach set in Gramercy Park. On the eve of her marriage to young, energetic and understanding Tony Drayton, Lucy Ashleigh, who has been pampered by her parents who have indulgently allowed her to dabble in all sorts of modern ideas, announces that she cannot go through with it. Having seen too much Ibsen and read too many advanced thinkers, she has decided that her first duty is to herself and that modern marriage is just a form of slavery. However, her clever mother convinces her to make an agreement with Tom so that they can marry and still retain their freedom.
When next we see them in their own home in the suburbs all is not well. The understanding Tom is hot under the collar over Lucy’s flirtation with the poet Gabriel Adams in his own home. And when Gabe’s live-in mistress, the female artist Leo Barnes, hints that Lucy and Gabe are having a torrid affair, it is up to Mrs. Ashleigh who just happens to be visiting to suggest that Tom give Lucy a taste of her own medicine. The twists and turns in the plot for these pretentious people are engagingly droll.
Played as drawing room comedy with a hint of later screwball films to come, Now I Ask You is a bit long for its plot but Roe’s production keeps it always entertaining. As the pretentious Lucy trying out new ideas, Emily Bennett is delightfully affected but always holds her own. Terrell Wheeler grounds the play as her genuine and uncomplicated fiancé who will go to any length to make her happy. Kim Yancey-Moore, seen earlier this year in Metropolitan Playhouse’s powerful production of Walk Hard, continues to impress as the resourceful mother who saves the day. Dylan Brown and Eric R. Williams are hilarious as the creative types pretending to disdain society’s norms. David Murray Jaffe is suitably blustery as Lucy’s conventional and infuriated father.
Roe’s sets for the upper class locales are most elegant without a great deal of décor. In the second play which has five scenes the settings are swiftly changed by the acting company. Sidney Fortner, who has a long history with Metropolitan Playhouse, has created a chic collection of costumes for these well-heeled characters. Christopher Weston’s lighting is particularly effective in the night-time scenes.
O’Neill (Unexpected) lives up to its name and Metropolitan Playhouse’s mission to explore the American theatrical heritage by “discovering where we come from to better know who we are.” While not in any way lost masterpieces, Recklessness and Now I Ask You are not only stage-worthy but prove to be vastly entertaining short plays. The non-traditional casting adds another level to the evening’s piquancy.
O’Neill (Unexpected): Two Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill (extended through June 30, 2016)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.MetropolitanPlayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission