Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long Day's Stay in Nothing: The Second Girl

MacKenzie Meehan, Kathleen McElfresh, & Christopher Donahue in The Second Girl. (All photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night may well be the greatest American tragedy ever written for the stage, so when I read the premise of The Second Girl at the Huntington Theatre Company, my curiosity was piqued. Irish playwright Ronan Noone has crafted a drama about the most unlikely of characters—the domestic help at the Tyrone household in Connecticut during the fateful day that O'Neill's autobiographical play chronicles. It takes a lot of balls to piggyback on O'Neill like this. How do you compete with the intensity and dramatic precision of the Tyrone tragedy? One successful approach would be to adopt a totally different style and genre, the way Christopher Durang parodies the play in his absurdist comedy The Idiots Karamazov. Another would be to siphon the tragic elements of O'Neill into the companion piece. Noone opts for neither approach, instead attempting a social commentary play that bears precisely no relation to the dramatic world it inhabits. The results are baffling.

If you're going to write a serious drama set in O'Neill's landscape, you have to follow the rules of engagement he sets down. Long Day's Journey is the archetypal family and barroom play, dramatizing with brutal honesty how relations simultaneously love and hate each other the most. During the titular day in the Tyrone house, Mary relapses into morphine addiction while her younger son, Edmund, is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Around and around the four Tyrones go in accusation and recrimination, dredging up old wounds and creating fresh ones in the process. The play's replete with symbolism—the fog off the Connecticut River, signifying illusion. Mary's misplaced wedding dress, representing the youthful happiness she's lost in her marriage to James. Mary herself, at once an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a drug-addled whore, at least in Jamie's mind. On that note, O'Neill employs his standard dramatic accouterments (booze, dope, whores, etc.) and themes: sin, nothingness, and man's inability to reconcile with himself and those around him so as to find peace.

Christopher Donahue and Kathleen McElfresh
Not one of these ideas shows up in The Second Girl. The play deals with three minor servant characters in the Tyrone household; O'Neill mentions two of them—Cathleen, the serving girl, and Bridget, the cook—by name and only the former appears in the flesh. To this pair, Noone adds one Jack Smythe, the driver of the car that James Tyrone hires to chauffeur Mary around town. The entire action takes place in the kitchen area off the Tyrone dining room and follows the arc of their fateful day. But that arc's merely temporal; in every other respect—dramatic, thematic, linguistic—The Second Girl bears no relation to its predecessor. Given how Noone sets up his play, you'd expect it to work as a upstairs-downstairs drama, popularized so much right now by Downton Abbey. Here, the source of the drama is the interplay between the upper and lower classes, who, though occupying separate social worlds, share a common humanity such that the events of one domain reverberate in the other. But the seismic events rocking the Tyrone family have the slightest impact on Noone's characters. Though the action takes place mere feet from the iconic living room where their employer family is falling apart, Cathleen, Bridget, and Jack seem oblivious. These characters might as well be on another planet, so divorced are their concerns, conflicts, and tenor of their relationships.

What we get instead is an opaque treatment of the servants' relational dynamics, in which the central conflict, from what I can tell, is whether Bridget should run off with Jack. Built around this inconsequential affair is a running debate between the two women over how Irish immigrants should relate to their new home in the United States. The severe Bridget clings to the ways of the old country, while Cathleen declares her intent to embrace the freedom of America. This is damnable and confounding. Who could possibly give a shit about any of these matters given what's happening offstage? But except for passing reference to Edmund's illness and Mary's addiction, nothing from Long Day's Journey informs The Second Girl. O'Neill wasn't the greatest writer of dialogue; he had a bit of a tin ear and his speech rhythms are strange. But they're also highly distinctive and dramatic and you'd think Noone would work in the slang and dialect of his Irish-American cousin. Think again. Much of The Second Girl sounds like a position paper, with Cathleen and Bridget each stating their thesis on the question of the social station of the Irish emigres.

As to that conflict, Noone doesn't even keep the parameters of Cathleen and Bridget's debate clear. The former says she wants to make a fresh start in America, yet much of the play deals with her heartbreak when she gets a letter from a lover back in Ireland, who's decided to end things. Wouldn't a lover count among the old sod ties that she precisely wants to cut? In any case, Noone's social commentary falls flat because instead of dramatizing the different viewpoints in some kind of tangible conflict, he has his characters speak self-consciously about their issues. “I'm Irish,” declares Bridget. “I believe in God and shame.” No actual Irish immigrant at the turn of the last century would ever speak like that. Irish people don't talk about having shame—they just feel it. Look at O'Neill's Tyrones: Jamie lacerates himself in self-loathing over his hatred of Edmund, but that's a character engaged in a particular conflict and acting out of his given circumstances. It's only today, now that they're part of the bland American mainstream, that Irish Americans speak in meta terms about their heritage. But even then, you'd never catch the ones in my family fighting about approaches to assimilation. They fight about family matters, and the larger conflict appears through it.

MacKenzie Meehan as the servant in The Second Girl.
That's how dramatic craftsmanship works, but Noone doesn't pull it off. I'm not sure what he was going for, really—at one point the core conflict seemed to be over whether Jack could wash his hands in the kitchen sink. If you know Long Day's Journey, you can pretty much tell where the Tyrones are in their saga at various points in The Second Girl, which is more than I can say for Noone's characters. When Jack gets back from driving Mary to town—during which she procures morphine at the drugstore—he saunters into the kitchen as if nothing consequential's occurred. Katherine Hepburn leaps from the automobile and races to the house to shoot up In Sidney Lumet's 1962 film version of Long Day's Journey, a fiendish smile breaking across her face. Don't you think Jack might have at least mentioned this odd behavior? The moment's outdone later, when Cathleen shares a drink with Mary in the dining room. By this time, the woman's high as a kite; Hepburn nearly passes out in a haze while the actress playing Cathleen watches in horror, timidly skulking away. But here, MacKenzie Meehan, playing the servant, blows back into the kitchen in high spirits and breaks into an Irish jig. I'm pretty sure giddiness doesn't ensue after a surreal encounter with your stoned employer. What was Noone thinking? The juxtaposition of the tragedy happening in the other room and the obliviousness of his characters in the kitchen renders the play at times into a black absurdist comedy. I'm guessing that's not what he was going for. “I want to tell everyone there's a much better play happening in the other room,” my friend whispered to me.

On the subject of acting, director Campbell Scott has failed to handle his performers with any dexterity. Meehan gives a mannered, scenery-chewing performance. Meanwhile, Christopher Donahue and Kathleen McElfresh (as Jack and Bridget, respectively) seem engaged in a contest over who can give the more passive performance. Neither actor makes much in the way of physical or dramatic choices, nor cares to raise the stakes on anything. Beats go unshaped, flowing lugubriously into each other with no discernible structure. The most interesting aspect about this production is the set, a fully functioning kitchen that designer Santo Loquasto has meticulously reproduced and topped off with a cast iron stove. Scott takes a page out of David Cromer's brilliant production of Our Town, having his actors prepare and cook real food onstage. But watching an actor beat eggs and roast chicken holds your attention for only so long. Cromer used such mimesis to pull off a devastating coup de théâtre, while here it provides mere stage business. James Ingalls's lighting matches the interior of the set, and he uses the gaslit lamps to pull you into the world on the cusp of electric lighting. He also follows O'Neill in lighting the hours of the day, with impressive sunrises and evening hues. Noone decides to try to one-up O'Neill and extend his drama into the following morning, his characters amiably rousing themselves for a hopeful dawn. Didn't they notice the four broken husks of human beings slumped in the dining room, the remnants of the shattered Tyrone family? Apparently no one involved in this production has.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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