Earlier this month, I concluded my role as “Jimmy Tomorrow” as the Fells Point Corner Theater’s 5-week run of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” came to an end. It was a grueling, but supremely gratifying process, tackling a play that, if run unedited, would have had audiences stewing in their seats for 5 ½ hours. With director and a cast of 18 in feverish edit mode, we were successful in bringing the play in at …3 ½ hours.
While the reviews were predominantly positive, I couldn’t help but notice that the number one complaint about the play was its length. And remember, this was AFTER the editing.
Even friends of mine—good friends—exited at intermission, commenting that while they enjoyed the show (or half of it anyway), it was “demanding” having to endure 3 ½ hours of drama. “You’re expecting a lot of your audience,” one long-time comrade noted.
Oh really? Maybe its high time theater started demanding something more from its audience.
This past Friday, for example, I attended a performance of Irish “bad boy” playwright Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull at Connemara” (am a big fan of McDonagh’s screen writing as in the film, In Bruges), a work that reflects today’s modern theater patron…or movie goer (McDonagh notes that his key influencers aren’t from the stage, but the soundstage—film directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese).
With these two works bopping about in my mind, it set my skull a’pondering…
While one play looks at a room for of broken, drunken men and the pipe dreams that keep them alive, and the other, one man having to face the prospect of exhuming his dead wife whom those around him all believe he killed, you could make the argument that these are both…comedies.
O’Neill himself describes “The Iceman Cometh” as a play that begins as a comedy and rather quickly stops being one…”Skull,” with its both bloody and bloodless skull-bashing, asides about lesbians, TV cop shows and Americans being duped into thinking every mug or cup for sale was a prop from John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara classic, “The Quiet Man,” clearly fits the definition of, at the very least, a black comedy.
“Skull,” including intermission, comes in at about two hours. “Iceman”…well, not quite enough time to pass the bar, but apparently its close.
If audience reaction was any indication, “Skull” was well received, and I enjoyed this Irish romp, with its loving elbow-nudges to Celtic culture (i.e. raging Catholicism and reverence for alcohol…or is reverence for religion and raging alcoholism?).
“Iceman” was also well-received, though by significantly smaller audiences, who often didn’t seem to be sure just where the laughs ended and the serious parts began. I was quite mystified how often the characters’ pathetic attempts to depart the safety of Harry Hope’s bar for the all-too-real-world, would result in bursts of laughter from those in attendance.
Some would argue that O’Neill, as my friend intimated, asks a lot of his audience. You have to be ENGAGED to truly appreciate O’Neill. Plays like “Skull” (and I think it telling that the playwright finds more influence from the world of movies than from the stage), not so much.