At the ANTA Washington Square Theatre
NEW YORK CITY-One does not normally associate humor with Eugene O'Neill. Yet he was fully capable of it, as evidenced byAh, Wilderness! and the lesser-known Marco Millions(often incorrectly calledMarco's Millions,whereas O'Neill was consciously adapting Polo's Italian nickname, "Marco il Milione")
Although Marco is not top-drawer O'Neill, even the B-plus work of our greatest American dramatist merits full attention. Finished in 1925 and originally produced in 1928, the play has until now been revived only once, I believe-by the Harvard Dramatic Club at Sanders Theatre in 1954. It was an inspired choice on the part of Lincoln Center to offer this neglected treasure as a companion to Arthur Miller's new play, which it officially joined in repertory last night. (My remarks, it should be cautioned, are based on a viewing five days before the formal opening.)
Marco Millions is O'Neill's most Shavian play, Though imbued with much poetic philosophizing, it is nonetheless peppered with brilliant epigrams and witty repartee. For all its use of the historical Marco Polo and exotic sites in medieval Venice, Persia, India, Mongolia and Cathay, there is no mistaking that the target of this epic satire was the materialistic and acquisitive American businessman-a creature that O'Neill also examined in Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, and Long Day's Journey Into Night, and one that still confronts us on every side, in a more notoriously tired form, perhaps, than that characteristic of the twenties. The chief model for O'Neill's Marco, aside from his own father, was the famous financier Otto Kahn, whom O'Neill here pits against the even more famous Kublai Khan. (Complains Marco, "I hate idleness, where there's nothing to occupy your mind but thinking.")
Jose Quintero, who is rightly regarded as the foremost recreator of O'Neill since the War, has directed this production. It is clear that Quintero has a valid conception, but there is more in the work than he has made apparent. Though the play is long, he has retained all twelve scenes of the text and then made internal cuts-somewhat excessively.
Nevertheless, he has fully captured the humor and satire in the script, along with a substantial part of the colorful pageantry envisioned by the playwright. It was a clever idea, for example, to stage the Venetian wooing scene between Marco and Donate as a parody of the Balcony Scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
The chief missing element is poetic delicacy. Many of the players, especially the minor ones, are allowed to overact; they are trying too hard. And although most (but not all)of them have learned their Oriental movements and gestures, they have not rid themselves of a variety of strictly American regional accents.
In the "heroic" title role originally created by Alfred Lunt, Hal Holbrook conveys all the get-up-and-go, insensitivity, and mindlessness that anyone could demand. It is obvious that, even in his visit to Xanadu, Marco would not recognize a stately pleasure-dome if he saw one. David Wayne looks admirably like the 75-year old Kublai Khan, but he often does not act like one; I could not persuade myself that the man I was looking at was the man I was listening to. Zohra Lampert shows us an appealing Princess Kukachin, love-smitten yet unrequited; but she overexerts. She needs more simplicity, purity, fragility, and musicality.
The performance I shall longest cherish is Joseph Wiseman's portrayal of the aged Chinese sage Chu-Yin. One senses an inexhaustible profundity beneath his face and eyes. His bearing; his gestures, his gait all strike unfailingly true. He is even careful to read the letter from Kukachin properly from right to left and top to bottom. If Quintero would allow him to forsake the occasional cracking falsettos in his diction, he would be perfect. Still, such subtle and rounded playing is rare on any stage. This man is every inch a Yin.
Of the featured roles, the one that stands out is Ghazan, the young Khan of Persia, as played by Harold Scott, the most impressively gifted actor ever to come out of Harvard. Having, by the way, appeared in the Sanders revival, Scott now becomes the first person to play in two productions of Marco. His Ghazan has both grace and nobility. After his very first line, a woman behind me whispered to her companion, "Now there is a voice!" She was quite right: no other member of the Lincoln Center company can match his classical diction. And one hopes that, in another season, the Center will mount a classic in which this prowess can be more extensively tapped.
David Hays' settings and lighting have risen to the challenge. Despite O'Neill's extravagant demands, there are no long waits between scenes. In one particularly ingenious solution, Kublai's arbor like baldachin is transformed before our eyes into theatre-high ship masts with full sail; the stage revolves while bathed by rippling spotlights, and we are on the high seas.
Thanks to Beni Montresor, a sumptuous array of Oriental costumes dazzles the eye in scene after scene until the final mourning conclave at Kukachin's catafalque, where all are imposingly clothed in a uniform white (for white rather than black is the funeral color in China).
On the other hand, the sizeable musical score composed by Doris Schwerin is inept beyond belief, despite the announced research into foreign musical styles. The instrumentation calls for recorder, cornet, sackbut (ancestor of the trombone), 'cello, percussion, and piano (if there's any instrument ill-suited to the out-of-doors and to travel, it's the piano). One easily grasps that this score is meant to be satirical. But satirical music, like any other kind, can be good or bad. This is bad. (Having myself composed the score for the 1954 production of Marco, I know well what the problems are.)
But don't let this keep you away from the show-and heaven knows when Marco will be staged again. Enough of O'Neill's intentions are on view at the handsome new ANTA theatre. Many whom this satire is aimed at will be occupying its seats. If these people fail to realize that they are the butt, it won't be the fault of Quintero and his charges.