When, in 1930, Greta Garbo uttered her first line in "Anna Christie" ("Gimme whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby"), moviegoers were stunned because they had never heard her speak before.
In 1922, when the play was first produced, theater audiences had been shocked simply to hear a woman make so vulgar a request. Women could ask for manhattans and daiquiris.
But whisky? Dear, dear.
Shock value had much to do with Eugene O'Neill's impact, and I had hoped that by the time I reached middle age, his plays, which have long since ceased to shock, would have gone out of fashion. With the exception of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Ah, Wilderness!" and a few others tolerable in Reader's Digest Condensed versions, the plays are bloated, melodramatic and verbally undernourished.
Fashion, however, has kept them popular. In the '30s, he was considered deep because he incorporated Freudian theory in his writing. In the '50s, he was relished by Method actors who, impervious to the banality of much of his dialogue, were eager to wallow in emotional excess.
Now, judging by the latest revival of "Anna Christie," I'm afraid he will be seen as a feminist champion, which will give even his clumsier plays, of which this is certainly one, renewed life.
In "Anna," O'Neill created a perfect feminist heroine. She is, first of all, a victim of men's lust. The daughter of a Swedish merchant sailor, Anna was sent to live with relatives in Minnesota when she was a child. When her mother died, she stayed there, and, at 16, was seduced by a young cousin. In a few years' time she became a whore.
She is also the victim of men's hypocrisy. Her father and the man she loves, both men of the sea, are only accustomed to dealing with prostitutes. When they discover how Anna has supported herself they are horrified.
For a modern audience, the highpoint of the play is Anna's denunciation of their hypocrisy, which sends them both to their truest friend, the bottle. Afterward, they return to Anna with new respect and love.
Although their enlightened understanding of Woman might delight feminists, what fuels this and many other O'Neill plays is his secularized Catholicism. His plays are about lost souls desperately in need of redemption. Invariably, they find it in human rather than divine love.
These plays work best when they are performed by actors whose foreheads bear the mark of doom, and who, without any effort, project tragic destiny. Of the actors in this revival, only one truly qualifies - Liam Neeson, an actor of tremendous presence. He bounds about the stage with a rough, virile energy balanced by enormous physical grace. For all his masculine bluster, there is also a kind of innocent boyishness that makes him an ideal O'Neill candidate for redemption by feminine forgiveness.
As the agent of that salvation, Natasha Richardson is at her best in the scenes of accusation and denunciation, which she handles with fiery resonance.
What she does not convey earlier in the play is the depth of Anna's suffering and her own need for redemption. She seems too tough and peevish to project Anna's grief.
Rip Torn, who plays her father, is saddled with the most embarassing of O'Neill's turgid dialogue, the constant references to "that old debil sea." Perhaps to undercut this melodrama, Torn plays the role on a light level, which also undercuts the drama.
Anne Meara is fine as his aging alcoholic pal.
The physical production and the music are splendid, but they cannot redeem the static direction and the creakiness of the play.
Anna's back in town - along with "dat ole davil sea."
Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna Christie" is about as flawed as a leaking canoe in a typhoon, but somehow with the right crew it can come through. The Roundabout Theater Company's current staging, which opened at the Criterion Center last night, very obviously has the right crew.
Indeed, with Natasha Richardson as Anna, all crumpled passion and rumpled pathos, matched with the bluff, bull-like intensity of Liam Neeson as her Irish stoker lover - both making memorable Broadway debuts - the play emerges through the foggy miasma of its wild and woolly accents (at times you feel subtitles might be in order) with unexpected power.
For a bad play, "Anna Christie" packs a walloping punch. But this is typical of O'Neill, the world's worst great playwright, who, despite all his fervent smoldering, only really found himself and his genius at the end of his career, with his three immutable masterpieces, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Everything else is spring training for the final jump.
This play's mechanism - and even David Leveaux's extravagantly imaginative and sensitive staging cannot disguise this - creaks with rusty abandon. Exposition, confrontation, resolution - the structure clanks into place, and the game plan has the characters making entries that are as planned as the stars in their courses.
The dialogue - smudged with the almost impenetrable tones of fake Swedish and genuine Irish - is simplistic when it's not mundane, and the melodramatic action seems at its happiest when the characters are lunging around the stage moaning like wounded animals.
As for the apparently happy ending (which O'Neill himself denied, and Leveaux here makes a strong effort to justify), this is merely icing on the cake of soap opera. But, but, but - there are productions, and occasions, where the people are right and the wind sits in the right direction, when the play (particularly the second half, once the sob story is virtually delineated) can actually triumph. It does here. More or less.
Anna is what was known in the Twenties, when the play was new, as a fallen woman. Brought up in the country, she comes to New York to find her seaman father, Chris Christopherson, and when she arrives in a bar, makeup awry, dress gaudy, and wearily demands: "Gimme a whiskey - ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby," no one, except her father, is in any doubt of her professional status.
And the play is the story of her regeneration and apparent redemption through the tarnished, but ultimately understanding, love of a good stoker. A real character in the play is the sea itself - yes, "dat ole davil sea" - which her father, for no evident reason, regards as the source of all evil.
Leveaux - one of Britain's brightest young directors - has gone to great pains to make the sea and the fog as important to the play as O'Neill envisaged, and his ending, unexpectedly opening the scene up to the swirling sea mist, by giving the "ole davil" a bit more than his due, does actually suggest O'Neill's own theories on the "ambiguous happy ending."
Richardson is superb. You can't understand much of what she says (her accent clearly, or rather unclearly, comes from the Meryl Streep school of Scandinavian English), rather less than in the case of her two great predecessors, Garbo on classic video and Liv Ullmann on Anna's last time out on Broadway. But this, given O'Neill's text, is partly an advantage.
She does miracles with a phrase like "I was lonesome," and throughout, her bruised spirit and battered sensuality light up the stage. Neeson comes across with the presence of a new Sean Connery (yes, I remember his West End stage debut vividly) and makes the now difficult character (times have affected the full credibility of his moral stance) oddly convincing.
Rip Torn as the father, Chris, is given all the silliest lines, but fortunately is even less intelligible than Richardson. On the other hand, it must be admitted that, unexpectedly if understandably, he doesn't make much of the part. Of course, neither did O'Neill.
"Anna Christie" is a strange, ramshackle classic. However, with these two knockout star turns from Richardson and Neeson - performances like these are rare - Leveaux's clever and minutely delicate staging (helped along markedly by John Lee Beatty's sets, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes and Marc B. Weiss' lighting) makes this a classic infinitely well worth seeing.
Maybe it's just the nature of Americans to rush forward, forever shedding their past. Whatever the reason, it is now British directors, far more often than our own, who dust off neglected American plays and startle audiences with their rediscoveries.
While prominent New York companies were boring theatergoers silly last month with mannered rehashes of Chekhov and Buchner, the air was electric in London, where the Royal National Theater opened Nicholas Hytner's revelatory take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Last week, public television broadcast a feverish new version of Tennessee Williams's "Suddenly, Last Summer," directed by Richard Eyre of the National.
And last night another British director who has worked at the National, David Leveaux, gave the Roundabout Theater Company a thrilling staging of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie." Like "Carousel" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," "Anna Christie" has been largely forgotten by the modern American theater that O'Neill, more than anyone else, willed into being.
Following the example of his peers, Mr. Leveaux seamlessly mixes actors from both sides of the Atlantic in his company. The astonishing Natasha Richardson, who was also brilliant in "Suddenly, Last Summer," gives what may prove to be the performance of the season as Anna, turning a heroine who has long been portrayed (and reviled) as a whore with a heart of gold into a tough, ruthlessly unsentimental apostle of O'Neill's tragic understanding of life. Yet Miss Richardson could not triumph without the sensitive partnering she receives from both Liam Neeson, the Irish actor recently seen courting Mia Farrow in "Husbands and Wives," and Rip Torn, an actor's actor in the gritty New York style.
The production's style is one of utter simplicity, reflecting the passion of a director who has reached into the fragile heart of a work and wants the audience to share the depth of pure feeling he found there. Stripping away the excesses of O'Neill's labored New England waterfront patois and the fussy naturalism of the setting, Mr. Leveaux also strips down the characters until finally there are no illusions left for them to hide behind, only a harsh and crushing truth that unites them in their nakedness. Starkly painterly to the eye and merciless in its emotional attack, this "Anna Christie" is reminiscent of the Hytner "Carousel" to the point where one can see how the contemporaneous O'Neill and Oscar Hammerstein 2d, though antithetical in philosophical convictions, were allies in forcing the American theater of a still-young century to enter adulthood.
In this telling, "Anna Christie" is not so much the salty romantic yarn of a woman's redemption in the arms of a shipwrecked sailor as a compacted long day's journey into night. The story, such as it is, seems to end soon after the play begins: the battered 20-year-old Anna, looking for peace, seeks out the seafaring father who deserted her as a child, Chris Christopherson (Mr. Torn), only to be condemned by him and her worshipful suitor, Mat Burke (Mr. Neeson), once she reveals her scarlet history. What follows is the play's notorious "happy" ending, whose happiness O'Neill vehemently denied when criticized for it after the 1921 Broadway premiere. Mr. Leveaux, keen to the text's black Irish wit, vindicates O'Neill's argument. Any happiness that attends to Anna, Mat and Chris at the end of this nominal comedy is as ephemeral and illusory as the booze and morphine that anesthetize the tragic protagonists of O'Neill's late masterpieces.
Miss Richardson, seeming more like a youthful incarnation of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, than she has before, is riveting from her first entrance through a saloon doorway's ethereal shaft of golden light. Her face bruised, her eyelids heavy, her slender frame draped in the gaudy fabrics and cheap jewelry of her trade, she is the tattered repository of a thousand anonymous men's alcoholic lusts and fists. But the actress does not make Anna a victim deserving of abject pity. She forces the audience instead to see this woman's fiercely held point of view.
Anna hates men as much for their hypocrisy as for their wish to own her and treat her "like a piece of furniture." As her father and lover berate her for not subscribing to their moralistic notions of propriety, she reminds them it is "nice people," Chris and Mat included, who frequent whorehouses, that it was a "nice" cousin on a Minnesota farm who first raped her as a teen-ager. Within Miss Richardson's bone-deep weariness there is a tight coil of anger -- the word nice has rarely been spit out more lethally -- and when the rage pours out after intermission, it shames and humbles Anna's men and the audience alike into examining what cruelties they have committed under the veil of decency. When Anna goes further still, begging that Mat end her misery by crushing her skull, the logic of her hunger for self-annihilation is so vivid that the audience seems to shrink from the certainty of a bloodbath.
What Mr. Neeson brings to that demanding scene and to the rest of his performance is the expected simian sexuality but also the interior, unarticulated contradictions of a sanctimonious Irish Catholic who condemns Anna's sins even as he searches his soul clandestinely for a compassion that might allow him to forgive her. ("There ain't nothing to forgive, anyway," says the always realistic Anna.) It is the drama of the baffled Mat, angrily confronting himself, not Anna, that makes the performance moving, especially in the morning-after scene in which his proper, sunny airs of courtship have given way to the blind, undirected venom of a mangy, injured dog.
Mr. Torn's father is another kind of cur. The perfectly pitched, bowlegged comic booziness of his first entrance is soon usurped by the pathetic regret of a man who knows he is responsible for the psychological maiming of both his daughter and the wife he abandoned in life and death. When Mr. Torn's Chris digs into himself to retrieve the Swedish endearment that is his only tender paternal memory of Anna's childhood, he seems to be clinging to this last tiny souvenir of his youth and humanity, much as the aged Mary Tyrone clutches her faded wedding gown in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Every detail in this "Anna Christie" has been supplely orchestrated, from the spare grace notes of Douglas J. Cuomo's incidental music to Anne Meara's finely shaded cameo of the doomed yet self-aware old mistress Chris dismisses in the opening scene. The dreamlike production design, with sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, is dominated by the lighting of Marc B. Weiss, who made a similarly memorable contribution to the production of O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten" that Mr. Leveaux directed with Kate Nelligan some Broadway seasons ago. The fog that O'Neill's people keep talking about, the fog that Anna says will cleanse her, becomes a poetic presence, as does the blackness of the old devil sea on which Chris blames all his woes.
O'Neill, of course, did not believe that the sea and the fog either cause or cure man's ills. O'Neill did believe, as Anna puts it, that "we're all poor nuts, and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong." In "Anna Christie," life is mean, familial and romantic love are both transient (if they exist at all), hope is a joke, and affixing blame is pointless. All these immutable facts are to be found in Mr. Leveaux's production. But Miss Richardson's Anna, while "sick of the whole game," clings to life anyway, a sad and brave and indisputably American heroine who is last seen facing a frontier of pure fog.
For a woman who has spent 13 years in forced labor on a Minnesota farm and two in a St. Paul brothel, the Anna Christie played by Natasha Richardson in her Broadway debut appears quite healthy indeed. Despite the painted smudges on her cheeks and the smudged paint on her eyes when she makes her entrance at Johnny-the-Priest's waterfront saloon, there is zero experience written on Richardson's very beautiful face. It seems to have weathered that hard life untouched.
The same was true of the last Broadway Anna, Liv Ullmann, in 1977 and, of course, of Greta Garbo in the 1930 film. But through their outer radiance those women projected a much more complex sensibility than Richardson manages in an otherwise game performance. (I can't vouch for Broadway's first Anna, in 1921, though this publication reported that "Pauline Lord, with her monotonous intoning, stock mannerisms, such as plucking at her sleeves, folding her arms, etc., is eminently fitted for the role of the unmoral 'easiest way' girl.")
Anna must be whore and madonna, world-weary and innocent, and that is a challenge Richardson is not fully equipped to make good on. Even when her lines are as salty as the sea around the barge she has come to share with the father she hasn't seen in 15 years, the actress is too winsome. "Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side and don't be stingy, baby," just doesn't ring true coming out of her mouth.
"Anna Christie" earned O'Neill the second of his four Pulitzer Prizes, though he later admitted the play hewed to Broadway formula, notably in a happy ending almost totally lacking in credibility given what has gone before. One may argue that it is a play about forgiveness, but put it up against "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and "Anna Christie" is plainly revealed as the youthful accomplishment of a great but still-developing writer.
Nevertheless, by virtue of its utterly seductive language, the play has extraordinary texture and sensuality that director David Leveaux and his excellent designers - John Lee Beatty, sets; Marc B. Weiss, lighting; Martin Pakledinaz, costumes - confidently tap into. Shafts of light slice through rolling fog, wailing horns and cries for help pierce the silence, planked walls glide apart to reveal the coal barge Chris Christopherson (Rip Torn) calls home.
Even with its imperfections, this is the most accomplished production by the Roundabout since moving uptown to a Broadway house. It has a lot of life in it, never more so than when Liam Neeson is on the stage. He plays Mat Burke, the hulking Irish stoker who falls hard for Anna only to revile her - temporarily, it turns out - when she divulges her sordid past. Bigger than life, muscled and shining with grime and blood, Neeson makes the most of his second-act entrance literally out of the sea, and never lets up. And both Torn and Richardson are at their best when dealing with him (though the staged fights are the lamest in memory.)
Otherwise, Torn frequently seems at sea - forgive the pun - as if not knowing quite what to do with himself on the stage when he's not intoning against "dat ol' davil sea" (which is often enough.) Anne Meara is quite wonderful as the inebriate girlfriend Chris kicks out when Anna arrives; now here is world-weariness worn like an old sweater and passed off with a glint in the eye. Too bad O'Neill dispensed with her after the first act.