Hudson Theatre Works mounts an ambitious and fulfilling Eugene O’Neill Festival

desire under the elms review

From left, Dale Monroe, Tony Knotts and Michael Gardiner co-star in Hudson Theatre Works’ production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”

For fans of serious theater on an affordable budget, the Hudson Theatre Works’ Eugene O’Neill Festival — presenting two plays for one low price — couldn’t come at a better time. Especially for those looking to return to live theater after a long drought caused by the pandemic.

Presented in the auditorium of the Woodrow Wilson School in Weehawken, the festival features one of O’Neill’s best-known works, “Desire Under the Elms,” along with the lesser known one-act, two-character “Hughie.”

Both shows succeed beyond expectations.

Hudson Theatre Works never wants for ambition, but recent productions like its gender-neutral “Hamlet” and the world premiere of Joanne Hoersch’s “Bunnies” suffered from bad casting or inadequate delivery. The five actors playing the tragic Cabot family in “Desire,” as well as the two men in “Hughie,” command and embody their roles to near perfection.

“Desire Under the Elms” proved both O’Neill’s most successful play to date and his most scandalous when it premiered in 1924, with its naturalistic treatment of greed, vengeance, infanticide and incest. Like other O’Neill plays of the era, the basic plot comes from the ancient Greeks, in this case Euripides’ “Hippolytus,” although there is a bit of “Oedipus Rex” in the tale, too.

The play takes place on three separate days over the course of a year at the Cabot farm, a small patch of rocky land where patriarch Ephraim Cabot (Gregory Erbach) and his three sons scratch out a living in 1850 New England. Two sons from Ephraim’s first wife, the dim-witted and loutish Peter (Michael Gardiner) and Simeon (Dale Monroe), hate the hard work and the ingratitude of their abusive father and dream of running away to mine for gold in “Cali-for-ni-ay.”

Ryan Natalino and Tony Knotts in “Desire Under the Elms.”

Their stepbrother Eben (Tony Knotts) was born of Ephraim’s second wife, and it was she who brought the farm into the family, so Eben sees it as his birthright.

Ephraim, though, sees the farm as his and his alone.

Then Ephraim returns from a trip with a new bride, the young and beautiful Abbie (Ryan Natalino), and the family dynamic disintegrates. Eben uses money he’s hidden from his father to buy out his stepbrothers’ stake in the farm and they leave for California. With his two oldest sons gone from his life, the cold-hearted Ephraim starts to warm to Eben and thinks about leaving him the farm.

Abbie will have none of that, so she promises Ephraim a child, and he promises that he’ll leave her everything if she gives him another son. She is unable to conceive, though, and hatches a plan. In one of the most powerful moments of the play, Ephraim stands at the foot of the stage and delivers a soliloquy about his hardscrabble life while, literally behind his back, we see Abbie seduce Eben. Finally, in the parlor that was once the sanctuary of Eben’s mother, they consummate their relationship.

In the third act, it’s a year later, and Abbie has given birth to a son. Eben knows it’s his but sees the baby as his ticket to inheriting the farm. Abbie, however, has gotten Ephraim to will the land to her and her alone. When Eben learns of her treachery, he threatens to leave and follow his brothers to California; Abbie, madly in love with Eben, commits an atrocity that seals their fate and brings the play to its tragic conclusion.

Erbach and Knotts excel, respectively, as the burly, gruff and wily Ephraim and the handsome, intelligent and randy Eben. Erbach manifests Ephraim’s thoughtless cruelty but also captures his humanity, such as it is; here is a man who has clawed a little success out of a pile of rocks and feels he’s earned everything he owns, forgetting that two wives died and three sons gave their every waking moment to the same plot of land.

As Eben, Knotts exudes both a moral center and a musky sexuality that make the play’s denouement seem both tragic and inevitable. Natalino, as Abbie, is a Hudson Theatre Works regular, having played Ophelia in “Hamlet” and one of the Playmates in “Bunnies.” She brings a bit of the young Katey Sagal to her role as a scheming but passionate seductress. In the moment when Abbie meets Eben, the audience can feel the electricity between them. Later, when Abbie flirts with a bare-chested Eben as he washes up for dinner, the sexual tension between them couldn’t be more palpable.

Nick Hardin, right, with Adrian E. Wattenmaker in “Hughie.”

Kudos to Erbach (who doubled as set designer) for using a few nondescript props (in this case, wooden crates) and back wall projections to make us believe we’re in the Cabot farmhouse while looking at a mostly bare stage. Frank Licato’s direction keeps the story moving briskly, milking a few laughs from the script (something he does especially well) without overplaying the play’s dramatic crescendos.
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The one-act, 40-minute “Hughie” takes place in the lobby of a seedy Times Square hotel circa 1928. Adrian E. Wattenmaker plays the Night Clerk, while Nick Hardin brings to life “Erie” Smith, a gambler who occasionally “runs errands” for some of the city’s big players.

The third, unseen character is Hughie, the former night clerk, whose recent death inspires Erie’s long soliloquy on the importance of the patsy.

“Erie” — his nickname is taken from his Pennsylvania hometown — wears a rumpled tan suit and a loud tie, his shirt hanging over an ample gut, with white hair that makes him seem older than his 55 years. Hardin could have stepped out of a Damon Runyon story; he captures a character we all know well, the big-talking, small-time hustler, a casualty of what remained of the Roaring Twenties before it all crashed. Wattenmaker almost fades into the scenery, but that’s exactly what the role calls for.

Erie remembers Hughie’s gullibility, his naivete, his admiration of Erie’s tall tales of gambling and women. Erie hasn’t won a bet since Hughie was rushed to the hospital before his death, and now he owes wise guys and old pals the hundred bucks he borrowed to buy a decent floral arrangement for Hughie’s funeral. Without Hughie’s sympathetic ear listening to his tall tales, Erie is left with the sad truth of his life. Will this new Night Clerk offer a similar escape?

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als, in reviewing a 2016 revival of the play starring Forest Whitaker, wrote, “Nothing significant happens in ‘Hughie’ except theater.” What more do you need?

The Wilson School is at 80 Hauxhurst Ave. in Weehawken. The plays will be presented together (“Hughie” first), Thursday through Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through Feb. 27. Visit hudsontheatreworks.org.

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