A year after he finished his happiest play, "Ah, Wilderness!," Eugene O'Neill wrote notes for a possible sequel.
In that never-written play, everything has gone sour. Richard, the young hero who gets his girl, comes back maimed from the first World War and breaks off the engagement. His soft-hearted mother has died of cancer, and his upright, ineffably decent father is bewildered by the cruelty of fate.
O'Neill's unrealized intentions should not reflect back on "Ah, Wilderness!" But they provide a reminder that happiness is not O'Neill's natural element. What gives "Ah, Wilderness!" its special flavor is that it is less a comedy than an elegy for a warm, safe, lost world.
Daniel Sullivan's stately production does full justice to that wistful undertow beneath the play's pleasant surface. It is gentle and forgiving but never soft. The unspoken knowledge that this is too good to last hangs in the air.
The play is essentially about the bad things that might happen but, for the moment, don't.
Richard's adolescent rebellion takes him into dangerous territory. On Independence Day, he takes to hard liquor and meets a prostitute. But he emerges unscathed. The complications of American adulthood are held at bay.
For a director, the play presents two difficulties. One is making Richard a believably silly, yet not insufferable, adolescent. The other is saving the play from smugness and sentimentality. Here, both challenges are admirably met.
There is a finely judged performance from Sam Trammell as Richard. He gets all the kid's self-pity and innocence, but also the intelligence and energy that make him sympathetic.
As his parents, Debra Monk and Craig T. Nelson manage a similar balancing act. They are the perfect, decent Yankees, but have enough sense of the ridiculous aspects of the characters to make them engagingly human.
Elsewhere, too, Leslie Lyles as Richard's Aunt Lily and Leo Burmester as the drunk she nearly married instill an awareness that life is too uncertain for self-satisfaction. Against the apparent optimism of the happy ending, they provide a sad reminder that opportunities are more often lost than seized.
Most of all, there is the sharp astringent of laughter. "Ah, Wilderness!" is not a play to have you rolling in the aisles, but it does have some deliciously absurd moments especially in Richard's drunken outbursts. Sullivan's direction makes the most of them.
Perhaps the test of a production of "Ah, Wilderness!" is whether, in the end, you find yourself wishing that O'Neill had written his downbeat, savage sequel and shattered this little idyll. Here, the note of tender elegy is sweet enough to make you glad that he held his peace.
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" which opened at the Vivian Beaumont last night, in Daniel Sullivan's staging and starring TV's "Coach," Craig T. Nelson, proves a miracle of sense and sensitivity.
"Ah, Wilderness!" is that rare bird in the O'Neill canon, a comedy. And although not one of the great O'Neill masterpieces, it actually uses language with more idiomatic freedom than O'Neill could muster anywhere else. Strange, because the play itself is O'Neill's fantasy rather than his rougher, grittier reality.
Here, on this 1906 Connecticut July 4th weekend, O'Neill paints a picture of the family he would have liked to have had. The play is the mother and father of all those sitcoms routinely extolling family values, but it has the special validity of emerging from a period when families really were families, and values really were values.
This present production is a dream of a staging - set designer Thomas Lynch has placed it in a kind of island marooned on the huge Vivian Beaumont stage, and Peter Kaczorowski has lit both it and Dunya Ramicova's fashion-plate accurate costumes in a misty glow arousing time remembered, an evocation softly echoed in Stanley Silverman's subtly pervasive original score.
Meanwhile, Sullivan has gotten delicately balanced performances from a cast that seems, from the outset, to suggest the sepia-faded photograph of a family group.
Sam Trammell as Richard, that outrageously narcissistic concept of O'Neill in his self-portrait of the artist as a young man, does wonderfully well, showing the fierce, untidy vehemence of youth and the passion of its fleet moment.
While Sullivan has concentrated on this Richard, making it even more of a memory play than usual - leaving the rest revolving around him like a carousel of photographic nostalgia - the whole cast comes vividly alive.
Nelson - completely unknown to me, as my nightwork always keeps me out of primetime TV range - is marvelous as the father, never even close to fulfilling the fatal potential of O'Neill's dangerously lovable moments, always keeping in check the playwright's double takes and triple grimaces, and playing the role beautifully cool.
Equally, Leo Burmester steers that whimsical drunk Uncle Sid to the safe shores of a saddened poetry; Leslie Lyles makes a pastelly pallid yet totally recognizable figure of the nervously puritanical Aunt Lily, and Debra Monk cuts a fine figure as O'Neill's queenly and impossibly perfect matriarch.
Among the young women, Jenna Lamia as the flighty daughter, Tracy Middendorf particularizing young love's dream, and Jenn Thompson playing a spirited childlike tramp, a young lady no better than she ought to be, are all shrewdly targeted and delightful.
Here is a classic production which subtly enhances a play's virtues while making light of its vices - this, in short, is Lincoln Center in top gear and high spirits.
An era of good feeling has descended on the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Illuminated by a summer sky of lavender and lime, and warmed by the words of Eugene O'Neill at his most wistful and serene, Lincoln Center Theater's revival of ''Ah, Wilderness!'' opened last night, in a production as smooth as a moonlit lake.
Fluidly staged by Daniel Sullivan, and featuring an endearing, breakout performance by Sam Trammell as the play's teen-age hero, Richard, this ''Ah, Wilderness!'' resolutely places the accent on the ''Ah.'' It was the tortured O'Neill's idealization of the rite of passage to adulthood, ''a nostalgia for a youth I never had,'' is how he once described the play, his one real stab at comedy. The director is scrupulous about doing justice to O'Neill in sweetness-and-light mode; short of watching tapes of the old ''Perry Como Show,'' the play is about as laid back an entertainment as you're apt to find these days.
Mr. Sullivan underlines the fantasy by setting the play on Thomas Lynch's attractively simple, open platform, with a few pieces of furniture, a wicker loveseat here, an overstuffed armchair there, to suggest a porch or living room in a comfortable turn-of-the-century Connecticut home. Dunya Ramicova's Sunday-best costumes provide a handsome sense of where we are, too: It's an all-American Oz, a wonderland where the conflicts are no more scandalous than those incited by a young man's racy mash notes to his girl or an impish uncle's happy-drunk infatuation with the bottle.
And it is presided over by the most principled and tolerant, steady and compassionate parents of anyone's dreams, played here with an affecting lack of fuss in a well-matched duet by Debra Monk and Craig T. Nelson. Ms. Monk's Essie Miller is Roseanne's nightmare of wifely perfection, a bona fide domestic goddess with a benign fixation on keeping her children on the straight and narrow and a palpable devotion to Mr. Nelson's manly Nat, a dependable if vulnerable father who gives 110 percent even when he doesn't know best.
But the real discovery of this production is Mr. Trammell. With his pouting good looks and slightly out-of-sync mannerisms, the actor embodies the two thrusts in young Richard's charming assault on us: charisma and callowness. Richard is that most ingratiating of rebels, the one who stalks out of a room shouting, ''I'll show them!'' It's clear in the silly certainty and gangly body language of Mr. Trammell, so good last year as the young fix-it man in the New Group production of ''My Night With Reg,'' that the only one who'll be shown anything is Richard himself.
Still, it must be noted that even with the abundant care that the director and his creative team lavish on their production, the soft tones and muted conflicts make ''Ah, Wilderness!'' a very mild brew. There are satisfactions, of course, in the strumming of life's mellower strings, as any good production of Chekhov attests. Maybe it's that a really nice family is less interesting than a really vicious one, but the gentle rhythms and humor of this atmospheric trip down O'Neill's false-memory lane grow a bit wearying. Near the completion of four acts separated by two intermissions, you may feel like the glassy-eyed guest at a relative's slide show of a recent vacation to Belgium: a little antsy for the lights to come up.
So out of character for O'Neill was this play, written over several weeks in the fall of 1932 and produced in New York the following year, that the playwright himself fretted over its reception, following the twisted Freudian undercurrents of his previous work, ''Mourning Becomes Electra.'' ''Has it charm and humor and tender reminiscence enough to disarm the people who will feel that dramatically it is a terrible letdown after 'Electra?' '' he wrote to a friend.
The play does continue to radiate a wholesome bonhomie. And for those familiar with O'Neill only by virtue of such dark masterpieces as ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' often seen as a sort of evil twin to the benevolent family comedy of ''Ah, Wilderness!,'' it retains a pleasing curiosity value, a refreshing air of a change of pace. (A production of ''Long Day's Journey'' is in previews at the Irish Repertory Theater, starring Brian Murray and Frances Sternhagen.) The letdown, however, has more to do with endurance than with expectation.
Set on the Fourth of July, 1906, O'Neill's comedy takes place in and around the Miller home. While fireworks boom in the backyard and fingerpaint the sky, it's in the 17-year-old Richard's face that the play's firecrackers figuratively explode. The upstanding Millers' second son is full of adolescent idealism and quicksilver mood swings; his quoting of Swinburne and Wilde is as shocking to his parents as teen-agers' raunchy television tastes are to some older folks today. When he decides to express his independence by visiting a bar with a wanton woman, well played by Jenn Thompson, who turns out to be more than he knows how to bargain for, he learns a thing or two about love and growing up.
That's about all there is to the plot of ''Ah, Wilderness!,'' whose other main concern is the textures of life in the Miller household. The play glides anecdotally from one incident to the next, filling up the canvas of an amusing family portrait. As a counterpoint to the rose-colored Millers -- who are based on the family of O'Neill's boyhood friend, Arthur McGinley -- the playwright invents a pair of frustrated lovers, Lily (Leslie Lyles) and Sid (Leo Burmester), the sister and brother, respectively, of Nat and Essie.
They are the more recognizable O'Neill types, an embittered spinster and a shiftless drunk, and though their story is meant to add pathos, neither performance has the desired impact. Mr. Burmester, as the charming rogue, gets the loutishness but not the charm; this tends to dry out his scenes with Ms. Lyles, who consequently has an uphill battle in winning our affection.
What you keep waiting for are the appearances of Mr. Trammell, who takes us on the only satisfying emotional journey ''Ah, Wilderness!'' allows. He makes trying on adulthood for size a real romantic adventure, and when he meets his one true love, Muriel (Tracy Middendorf), on a beach late in the play, it is the culmination of Mr. Sullivan's golden-memory vision of the play.
With the beacon of a distant lighthouse pricking the night sky, so movingly lighted by Peter Kaczorowski, you have a moody approximation of O'Neill's version of heaven. It's an apt postcard image for a production that, all in all, feels less like a treasured keepsake than a pleasant souvenir.
A warm and accessible production of one of the most commercially viable of Eugene O'Neill's familial sagas, Daniel Sullivan's vibrantly staged and thoroughly entertaining Lincoln Center revival of "Ah, Wilderness!" has both the creative integrity and the contemporary spark necessary to attract audiences beyond O'Neill devotees.
Among a stellar ensemble cast, Sam Trammell makes the playwright's malcontent alter-ego smolder with latent sexuality -- this could be a star-making turn for a hot young actor.
And although one could argue that the role of the genial but slightly confused newspaper proprietor, Nat Miller, is essentially a 1906 incarnation of the coach that star player Craig T. Nelson played in a long-running sitcom, no one could accuse the craggily sculptured Nelson of superficiality. A fascinating blend of curling eyebrows, quizzical demeanor and gentle earnestness, Nelson deftly captures the soul of a decent man with a tenuous grip on both modernity and patriarchy.
Sullivan's greatest directorial achievement here is the creation of a believable extended family that is not only archetypally credible but also intensely empathetic to a contemporary audience. An artist with a strong sense of humor, Sullivan has also managed to point up the inherent comedy of the piece (the gags in the script are punched out with uncommon zeal) without sacrificing authenticity or falling into any of the hackneyed pitfalls of character-based poetic realism.
From a 1998 perspective, O'Neill certainly set the traps. In a work widely regarded as his attempt to sanitize (or diffuse the ongoing effects of) the memory of drug-ridden monsters that populated his own troubled youth, the seminal American scribe created a befuddled but well-meaning middle-class crowd of familiar types in a play he described as a "nostalgic comedy."
Most of the action here revolves around Richard (Trammel, who's delightfully intense), a high-schooler who upsets the community balance by sending his local girlfriend, Mildred (Jenna Lamia), racy love letters culled from his newfound interest in the scribblings of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde. When Mildred is forced by her narrow-minded father (James Murtaugh) to cast off Richard, her temporary rejection sends him on a second-act bender in the bad side of town, where he encounters a hooker (delightfully played by Jenn Thompson), but ultimately remains a virgin.
Richard's parents spend a great deal of time worrying about how to react to their lusty and impassioned off-spring. His mother, Essie (Debra Monk), talks about punishment but is easily melted. Father Nat delivers awkward sermons on the facts of life. The boy's young sister and two brothers -- one a kid, the other a stiff Yalie -- laugh at the budding sensualist.
And O'Neill even provides an inhouse alcoholic role model for Richard in the guise of the aging Sid Davis (Leo Burmester), the mother's brother, whose general debauchery has prevented his marriage to the gentle Lily (Leslie Lyles), the father's sister, for the past 16 years.
The cast and director give these icons uncommon specificity. Even minor characters like Thompson's Belle and the salesman who ejects Richard from the bar are drawn with considerable depth and humanity. And if Monk sometimes seems too urbane as Essie, there are few other off-notes in a production that never confuses honest respect for a classic text with stultifying reverence.
Burmester and Lyles turn in excellent character work, while the assorted Miller offspring are uniformly well performed. From the clever opening tableau through a funny dinner scene in which the kids have their backs to the audience, Sullivan creates the kind of entertaining stage pictures that keep his work eminently watchable.
Although the design style is not entirely consistent (some scenes are more fully realized than others), Thomas Lynch outdoes himself in the final-act setting, fluidly evoking the romantic strip of beach where the young lovers meet to resolve their problems. Aided here by richly textured lighting from Peter Kaczorowski, Sullivan is a master of the slick transition, and the show moves beautifully from one scene to another, seemingly taking the audience on a physical journey mirroring the voyage of the characters.
Staged by the Roundabout Theatre in 1983 to mark the play's 50th birthday, "Ah, Wilderness!" has proved a consistently revivable and pliable attraction over the years. There was a 1959 musical version, and Mickey Rooney and Agnes Moorehead appeared in a 1948 film incarnation, "Summer Holiday."
Aside from eliminating the box office poison of a title that seems singularly inappropriate, that celluloid moniker nicely captured the languid and easygoing charms of O'Neill's least literary but surely most playable show.
In Sullivan's capable hands, this pleasing comedy appears fresh, honest and surprisingly applicable to the postmodern age.