The Nice Man Cometh

From left: Sean Cleary, Ted McGuinness, Peter Atkinson, Renée Petrofes, and Heather Olsen in Ah! Wilderness! (Sheen Center)
A new production of Eugene O’Neill’s underwhelming Ah, Wilderness! opens in New York.

Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is a comedy. No, that’s not quite right. Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is a Eugene O’Neill comedy, which is to say it doesn’t actually make you laugh much. But at least it doesn’t make you want to kill yourself. Also, it’s under four hours long — under three, in fact.

Still, “Thank you for not beating me up again, sir!” is the only attitude I can imagine would lead a viewer to detect much merit in this mild, low-conflict, low-impact family drama built around the wheezy theatrical device of a misunderstanding due to a letter. First performed in 1933, the play, which is running at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture Greenwich Village through February 17, found O’Neill in an atypically cheery mood, wondering what it might be like to be a member of a reasonably happy upper-middle-class family in prosperous southern Connecticut. He sketches some plausible characters but can’t come up with much for them to do. A romance is briefly disrupted by a misleadingly nasty missive composed under duress by one young lover and sent to another on July 4, 1906, the day on which the entire play is set. That’s it.

The teen who receives the note in question is Richard (the likable Peter Atkinson), a dreamy young radical in Connecticut who bathes in subversive polemics and sensuous verse such as “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” the medieval poem that became a sensation in a Victorian translation by Edward FitzGerald. “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and thou” is its most famous line, but the very next ones yield O’Neill’s title: “Beside me singing in the wilderness — ah, wilderness were paradise enow!”

Richard is a bog-standard young man o’ passion, on a higher intellectual plane than those around him and welling with artistic urges. Will no one understand his exquisite sensitivity? As if all of this weren’t enough of a giveaway that he is an O’Neill stand-in, his father mocks him as an ally of the Communist Emma Goldman, whom O’Neill admired. Under orders from her harrumphing papa, Richard’s sweetheart, Muriel (Megan McDevitt), sends him a letter breaking things off, which causes him to go binge-drinking with a hooker, though he is far too innocent to sleep with her.

There is a touch of honeyed memory to Richard and Muriel’s relationship, but we have to wait far too long — until the third act — to meet her, and the one scene they share, touching though it is, is so idealized that it carries little weight. Their temporary contretemps isn’t enough story to sustain a two-and-half-hour drama, in which little else happens except an unresolved subplot about middle-aged ex-lovers who still carry a torch for each other. If O’Neill could actually create some laughs in his “comedy,” that would be different. But for the most part, he doesn’t even try, and the single most amusing interlude in the play is droll purely by accident: A fast-talking hepcat appears briefly to lay down a layer of outlandishly dated slang that sounds like Grandpa Simpson reminiscing about how young bucks used to talk in the old days.

O’Neill’s finest accomplishment here is Richard’s kind, understanding father, Nat (Ken Trammell), a sort of Atticus Finch of Connecticut. He’s a principled, honest newspaper owner, fondly ribbing Richard but standing up for him, reasoning his way through all disputes with decency and compassion. When Muriel’s retailer father, Dave (a blustering Jim Haines), makes false accusations against Richard, Nat won’t hear a word of it and ends the encounter even as Dave threatens to pull his advertising from the newspaper. Sorting out the tangle that results from the letter that has Richard in despair, Nat proves the kind of dad who asks for a straight, honest answer and commands so much respect that he gets one, every time. Will Rogers once played him.

Credit to O’Neill for reining in his usual excesses, but if this play were turned in by an unknown writer today, its author would be ordered to put it back in the oven for a while. Or maybe just stash it in a drawer and try to come up with a more compelling idea. If the standard for success is, “This play was so much fun I didn’t order a cyanide cocktail at intermission,” the standard is too low.

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