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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in the Preview section of U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 15, 1998. All rights


Review: `Ah, Wilderness’

Some wise guy of a critic once remarked that any comedy

that runs more than two hours becomes a tragedy. He has surely forgotten

the joy one experiences as Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, "Ah,

Wilderness," nears the three-hour mark. Of course, there have

been many comedies from Shakespeare to Simon that have tested the

limits of an audience’s laugh tolerance. Perhaps "Ah, Wilderness"

succeeds more beautifully than many other long comedies because it

unfolds like a Valentine rather than erupting like a volcano.

The luminous beauty of "Ah, Wilderness" has never been so

warmly and sparingly revealed as it is under the direction of Daniel

Sullivan. A stunning impressionistic deep purple, green, and black-streaked

horizon, and a minimalist arrangement of a few chairs and tables (the

brilliant conception of set designer Thomas Lynch, and lighting designer

Peter Kaczorowski) are all that is needed to help set off the emotional

and real fireworks, and most of all, the plain nostalgic fun.

Despite the play’s familiarity, Sullivan’s uncluttered staging breathes

new life into the halcyon-like halls of O’Neill’s fantasy. "Ah

Wilderness," unlike the playwright’s heartbreaking autobiographical

purge in "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" (a production of

which is at the Irish Repertory Theater), is basically a sentimental

fantasy about the family and childhood O’Neill ached for but never

had. Yet, his lovable nostalgic turn-of-the-century portrait of the

Millers is as much a lyrical distortion of truth, as that of the obsessively

self-destructive Tyrones. Sullivan’s minimized apple-pie vision is

as declamatory and clear as the 4th of July fireworks that punctuate

the activities of the wholesome Connecticut household.

Moving right along from her over gregarious performance

as the slut with the heart of you-know-what in "Steel Pier,"

Debra Monk leaps into the undiminished radiance of Essie, the delightfully

contradictory Miller matriarch. If Monk can never be accused of being

stingy with theatrical vitality, she injects a dippy sort of spunk

into Essie, a role that can be merely nagging. Monk’s interpretation

stands in sharp relief from the very different Essie, played by mother-earth

Colleen Dewhurst on Broadway in 1988.

But none of these stellar actors detract from our involvement with

the young love-intoxicated Richard, as played to play-dominating perfection

by an exceptionally winning Sam Trammell. The longish beach scene

between Richard and the cautiously adventurous Muriel moved along

with a bright effervescence thanks to Tracy Middendorf, whose beguiling

impact made up for her late-in-the-play appearance.

Jenn Thompson gave us plenty more than just tang in her role as Belle,

the bar tart who tries to seduce Richard. If Dylan Chalfy were not

so excellent an ensemble member, although he gets the spotlight with

a nicely sung song, his devilish interpretation of Richard’s older

brother, the pipe-smoking, pseudo-sophisticated Arthur might be construed

as scene-stealing. A large cast, a long comedy and a lovely memory.


— Simon Saltzman

Ah Wilderness, Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center,

212-239-6200. $45 & $55.

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