Volume 78 - Number 48 / May 6 - 12 , 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
Through July 5th
St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
212-239-6200 

Photo by Liz Lauren

Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber

Pablo Schreiber’s emotionally exhausting new role

Performing O’Neill; with Bob Dylan, without irony

By Scott Harrah

At only age 31, stage and screen actor Pablo Schreiber already has an imposing body of work, having established himself as a force in the New York theater scene as well as Hollywood. He was nominated for a Tony for his performance in the 2006 revival of the Clifford Odets classic “Awake and Sing!” — and has been a staple of the downtown theater world for years, performing in countless off-Broadway shows.

Schreiber has also appeared in several Hollywood films, including Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and several episodes of TV’s “Law & Order.” His most demanding role to date, however, is his portrayal of Eben in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” — currently playing on Broadway after an acclaimed run at Chicago’s prestigious Goodman Theatre.

The major New York drama critics have praised Schreiber’s performance, and for good reason.  As Schreiber himself will tell you, playing Brian Dennehy’s son in O’Neill’s tragic story of lust, betrayal and greed on a mid-1800s New England farm has been a problematic, emotionally exhausting but artistically satisfying journey.

In a phone interview with the busy actor after a recent Wednesday matinee of the show, Schreiber described how the character of Eben immediately intrigued him after director Robert Falls showed him the script. Falls came to see Schreiber in “reasons to be pretty” last year and thought he’d be perfect for Eben. “He sent me the script and asked me to do the part,” Schreiber says. “When I read the script, I thought it was incredible. It was massive, sprawling and epic in its feeling, and I had no idea how I would ever be able to perform it or how it would really work for a modern audience.”

The story focuses on the Cabot family (on a farm, circa 1850). Eben’s mother has recently died, and he’s still grappling with her loss when his father, Ephraim Cabot (Dennehy) marries a much younger woman, Abbie (the sultry Carla Gugino, giving an incandescent performance). This production adds many modern and unorthodox touches to the story. Instead of O’Neill’s titular elm trees, scenic designer Walt Spangler suspends numerous boulders and a butchered hog above most of the stage. Carla Gugino sports short, sexy dresses that no respectable woman would have worn in 1850. For some reason, Bob Dylan’s song “Not Dark Yet” is heard at one point.

The intense narrative and O’Neill’s colloquial dialogue, however, remain true to the time period in which the drama is set.  Like Tennessee Williams, O’Neill wrote crisp, unforgettable lines that were peppered with folksy sayings and regional American dialect. Characters say words like “purdy” without any humorous intent, and this was especially tough for Schreiber when rehearsing the role of Eben.

“It seems to me that one of the real challenges of O’Neill is the complete lack of irony and that really doesn’t jive with modern audiences,” Schreiber says. “It’s so ironic, but there is no joke to be in on this show. So the real challenge is to play it true, play it not for laughs. And I had no idea how that would happen. So I felt like I had to do it [the role].  And I was kind of blind as to what it might be or how it could exist in the world.” 

Performing in such a classic show and delivering its unique dialogue has been a learning experience for Schreiber. “Because of the lack of irony, you really have to give in to emotional places that are pretty drastic—from love to hate,” he says. “It’s difficult to make things fresh and true. And then of course speaking O’Neill’s language, it’s written in a dialect and so that’s very different than most of the things I’ve done. To go from Neil LaBute off-Broadway to performing O’Neill on Broadway, that’s a pretty drastic change.”

It’s an extraordinary change indeed that truly shows Schreiber’s range as an actor. The onstage sexual chemistry and tension between Schreiber and Gugino is particularly dynamic. They fight, scream, and make love all over the place. “It’s pretty profound and deep in terms of an experience to have with another actor,” Schreiber says of working with Gugino. “It’s the most complete experience I’ve ever had in terms of fulfillment and up and downs and all of those things. So that’s definitely been one of the highlights. One of the best things is when we nail it and when the audience gives in to it. The last half hour of the play could be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in the theater.”

Schreiber has few scenes with the superb Brian Dennehy, but he says performing with the venerable actor has been rewarding. “There’s one scene toward the end where he sort of crushes my world by telling me his wife was lying to me all along,” Schreiber says. “Having Brian in the room and working with him has been an absolute treat. He goes back so far with working with O’Neill himself and his plays. And that’s a real luxury to have around.”

Prior to “Desire Under the Elms,” Schreiber worked with his share of other great thespians. He made his Broadway debut just three years ago in “Awake and Sing!” Getting nominated for a Tony for his first role on the Great White Way was, he says, “almost surreal

“The show I did before that was ‘Mr. Marmalade’ Off Broadway and it was very small and I don’t want to say insignificant but different,” Schreiber says. “And then to be brought into ‘Awake and Sing!’ with this dream cast of people — not the most famous people in the world, but absolutely fantastic, so the whole experience was just such a dream.”

Acting is a family affair for Schreiber. His brother, Liev, is also an accomplished actor. “Definitely, he’s had a great deal of indirect influence, being that he’s my brother,” Schreiber says. “He’s ten years older. He’s been doing it for awhile, and he’s had a great deal of success and he’s had a lot of influence on me in terms of just watching his career and successes and very, very few failures and seeing how he’s dealt with it all.”

What’s next for Schreiber? “I can’t talk about any upcoming projects,” he says. “Right now we’re at the St. James Theatre until at least July, so that’s my immediate future.”

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