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The Great God Brown, Columbia Stages

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 Leave a Comment

When I was a younger man oh hell let's say when I was a boy, I loved Eugene O'Neill as a convert loves the polish of his new found religion, I was blind off the shine of him; my inclination to drink, already strong and stronger for wanting to lose myself in everyone else, found in O'Neill's artistic journey proof it was more than mere cowardice, but rather the necessary apprenticeship of genius. To drink, to go to sea, and I had already been there so I could focus my energies entirely on to drink, and I was, drunk; six nights out of seven and all seven straight if I was trying. Funneling half a case of Busch is no way to spend a night but it's a great way to lose one; and that was the way I lost many, or rather to my mind then, gained the experience necessary to quote Baudelaire and mean it.

And the play of all plays in that time of life was O'Neill's Great God Brown. A meditation on how those who are good at living are often terrible at Life, told through masks and perhaps the most obviously poetic language of O'Neill's career:

"Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid of love, I who love love? Why am I afraid, I who am not afraid? Why must I pretend to scorn in order to pity? Why must I hide myself in self-contempt in order to understand? Why must I be so ashamed of my strength, so proud of my weakness? Why must I live in a cage like a criminal, defying and hating, I who love peace and friendship?
Why was I born without a skin, O God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or to be
touched? Or rather, Old Graybeard, why the devil was I ever born at all?"

This is Dion Anthony, the mocking artist, in the moment where he first removes his mask and reveals his sincere self. Those first years of school, those words ran through my blood like mercury, I was mad for them. I myself was engaged in the construction of a rather crude and unconvincing mask, and Dion and Eugene's fit so much better.

You would not hear those words, if you'd seen Michael Rau's production at Columbia Stages, nor would Dion remove his mask; for in this production, there are no masks and there is little Dion. To take the central stage language of O'Neill's play away and expect the story to stand is bold; to remove much of the text of the primary antagonist (Dion) is to risk rewriting the play entirely. But Rau's vision, while not O'Neill's, is a fascinating, well-thought riff on it; and I was excited to see the play this different light.

Rather than masks, much of the action takes place behind glass screens, obliquely hinting at the role-playing and distance between public and private self that O'Neill made explicit. When Brown takes on his murdered best friend's persona now, he does not adopt his mask, but rather his shirt. In all these changes, what emerges is a story of one man's obsession for another man's life, and with the excellent Jon Levenson as Brown, it makes for exciting theatre.

There is quite a bit of dissonance between the awkward, rough and passionately original play and this leaner, sleeker, simpler version Rau has staged; but this dissonance adds to the disconnection at the heart of this production. Brown, good at everything in life, resents the love showered on his friend Dion, who is terrible at living and yet is possessed with an undeniable Life. For this, Brown murders him, and tries to become him, until he is consumed by him.

As for O'Neill's uncut masked version, it presents so many challenges in tone and style, that I doubt I will ever have the chance to see it well-staged - I wonder if it even can be. And Rau's version caught enough of the tormented heart of this play to be worth watching.

Also exciting was the chance to see the excellent Catherine Gowl as Cybel the earth mother prostitute; and Sarah Schmitz standing out in an Ensemble role. Both of these actresses, and the eerily present Levenson, are actors I hope to see more of.