Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Desire Under the Elms

Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber

Rock Solid Performances and Stone Hearts
By Lauren Yarger
The rocks forming walls and suspended by ropes that threaten to crush the life out of characters are literal and metaphors for the hearts of stone at which lust and greed chip away in a revamped Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.

Scenic designer Walt Spangler sets the rocky stage with a stark and dark images of the 1850 New England farm and house (itself also suspended over the characters at times) of the Cabots, a deeply dysfunctional clan headed toward disaster. The always excellent Brian Dennehy stars as patriarch Ephraim who brings his new, much younger bride, Abbie (Carla Gugino), to the homestead to meet his sons: simpleminded and disgusting Peter and Simeon (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman) who are the products of his first marriage, and the sensitive Eben (Pablo Schreiber) by his second wife who had claims to the farm.

The object of everyone’s affection, however, is the farm itself. Peter and Simeon feel their hard labor has earned them equal shares, but Eben believes the property is his because his father stole it from his mother, then drove her to her death. Abbie makes her own claims and intimates that she only married Ephraim to have a home of her own. The harsh and selfish Ephraim isn’t buying any of it. The farm is his, he tells them, and he promises to outlive them all so they’ll never inherit any of it.

Eben purchases any claims his brothers might make by giving them each $300 to go west where they hope to make a gold strike. Abbie solidifies her claims by telling Ephraim she wants to give him a son to inherit the place. Meanwhile, what begins as hatred becomes a growing attraction between Abbie and Eben. It smolders (lighting designer Philippi excels at making this appear literal) and in some nice staging from director Robert Falls which has Abbie and Eben mirroring moves and reaching out to each other from different scenes, the attraction ignites and when the fire can be extinguished no longer, the two become lovers.

It’s a rocky path indeed as Abbie becomes pregnant and presents the child to Ephraim as his heir. Eben objects and suspects that Abbie has used him as a means to get the farm. When Abbie makes a decision to prove her love for Eben, tragedy ensues.

All of the performances are strong, though the play, presented in a shortened version of O’Neill’s work staged at Chicago Goodman’s theater before coming to Broadway (it’s approximately 100 minutes, no intermission ), is less rock solid, however, as it offers some unrealistic plot and dialogue from time to time. It feels like a practice piece for some of the playwright’s later masterpieces. Original music from Richard Woodbury sets the mood (you can almost hear animals screaming in there) and a too-long recorded song is sung while a dialogue-free scene is acted out.

Desire Under the Elms is depressing, but this is to be expected when characters driven by lust, greed and selfishness develop hearts as heart as the stones surrounding them. The performances make it worthwhile.

Hurry if you want to see it. Desire Under the Elms closes Sunday at the St. James Theatre, 246 W.44th St., NYC. For tickets, click here.

Christians might also like to know:
• Mature Advisory
• Nudity
• Sexual Acts
• Sex outside of Marriage

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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