IT'S A SHAME THAT after the New Phoenix Repertory Company has come all the way up from New York, had a press conference, passed out free tickets to reviewers and distributed discount coupons to win over our city's youth--it's a shame that after all that they should choose to open this season with a play that is so weak a link in O'Neill's ouevre that it would be better off missing. The truth is that Eugene O'Neill was afflicted with a love of novelty in the same way that many students are afflicted by a taste for the killer weed and the result is the theatrical equivalent of dead brain cells.
The Colonial Theatre, where the New Phoenix company has circled up its wagons for a two-week stay is the Versailles of Boylston Street and an elegant home for the alternating productions of The Great God Brown and Mohere's Don Juan. It's also the headquarters for a variety of goings on the Phoenix is sponsoring at Boston-area colleges. Last week Brown's director Hal Prince gave a talk on O'Neill at the Loeb and tomorrow members of the company will perform a work drawn from Sean O'Casey's writings on women. While it is unlikely that such happenings will reach many Boston students, rarely has the road to Broadway been paved with such good intentions.
Neither good intention nor Prince's talented direction are enough to support the crushing weight of O'Neill's foolish aspirations. Instead of settling for good melodrama. O'Neill has dug up actors masks from their classical graveyard and with them hopes not only to represent his characters' divided souls but also to express the "mystery" that is the meaning of any event.
The basic story line is simple enough. Dion Anthony and William Brown are high school friends and both are in love with a girl named Margaret. Anthony wins the girl but messes up his life while Brown becomes an intensely driven and successful architect. Not only do they share the same mistress, Cybel, but when Anthony falls on hard times Brown gives him work ghost-designing important assignments. Anthony's impossibly sensitive nature drives him to drink and death. Brown has what he's waited a lifetime for, the chance to assume Anthony's role as husband, father and creative designer--but wish fulfillment drives him insane.
WHILE THAT'S A SYNOPSIS of the play as it realistic drama, there is in fact little realistic about it. O'Neill won't let his characters have their own personalities and foists symbolic roles upon them. As he confesses in the program notes. "Dion Anthony is the creative pagan acceptance of life fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity as represented by Saint Anthony:" Margaret is the "eternal girl woman with a virtuous simplicity of instinct, properly oblivious to everything but the means to her end of maintaining the race;" Cybel is "an incarnation of Cybelle, the Earth Mother doomed to segregation as a pariah in a world of unnatural laws;" and last of all, Brown is "the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth--a Success--building his life of exterior things inwardly empty and resourceless."
While iron-stomached culture hawks might salivate in the presence of such gaudy symbols, it only makes the cast's eternal fight so much more valiant. They have no choices but to flash around their stylized plastic masks and they do so with considerable cleverness. Only John McMartin as Dion Anthony has difficulty finessing his way through the surrealistic script. The New Phoenix's leading lady. Katherine Helmond, does well in the role of Margaret, and Marilyn Sokol is fine as Cybel, although offhand it's difficult to picture how an Earth Mother should be. Best of all is John Glover as Billy Brown. Quick and versatile, the play's few moments of glory are his.
In the final act, O'Neill's ambitious experimental approach begins to achieve the fascination he has strived for all along. It is only after he has left compromise behind and forsaken all ties with realistic credibility that the theatrical experience transcends O'Neill's stupid intellectual conceits and takes its place in the tradition that led to Beckett and Albee.
While its idiosyncrasies, snappy production and historical importance make The Great God Brown worth a theatre buff's while, the failure of its naked intellectualization should prove once and for all that there is no place for nudity in the theatre.