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'Desire Under the Elms' - Review

Desire? You Bet. Elms? Not So Much

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating


Desire Under the Elms, Brian Dennehy

Brian Dennehy

Charlie Gallay/Getty Images

In this revival of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, director Robert Falls gives us a bleak view of lost souls willing to do anything for a piece of land no one should want.

What This Show Is About

Desire Under the Elms is a 1924 Eugene O'Neill play in which he used elements of Greek tragedy to bring to life a story of the original dysfunctional family.

Set in 1850 New England, Desire Under the Elms centers on the cost of greed for all the players. At the heart is the domineering father, Ephraim Cabot, who long before had married stepson Eben Cabot's mother, taking over her farm. Ephraim brought along with him sons Simeon and Peter,

As the play opens, Ephraim appears to have abandoned them, Eben buys Simeon and Peter out, and Ephraim returns with a beautiful, young wife, Abbie, who also desires the farm.

What You'll Like About 'Desire Under the Elms'

Director Robert Falls takes no chance that we'll misunderstand the message of this play, namely that when you are consumed with desire for something, it's not the thing you really want, it's something else, and the desire will eventually consume you.

Falls and scenic designer Walt Spangler give us a barren, rocky landscape that no one could love, let alone desire. It looks more like the quarry in a prison than a farm. The farm house is suspended above it, as if to tell us this isn't a real place, this isn't the object of the players' desires.

The performances are uniformly strong from Brian Dennehy as Ephraim, Pablo Schreiber as Eben and Carla Gugino as Abbie.

Good Things To Know

The original 20-character, three-act play has been boiled down to five main characters and one act. I have to say that's a bit of mercy. The unrelenting bleakness of the set, the characters' lives and thoughts, and the action, doesn't make for a very enjoyable evening of theater.

That's not to say all theater has to be light or even enjoyable. But as the Cabot family plus Abbie are portrayed, it is simply hard to fathom why anyone would want that land and why any of them would want each other. I know that's the point. The objects of their desires are different from the fact of their desire. But we need somehow to believe they could desire what they are mistakenly longing for.

I guess I just need to see a few elms along with the desire, and there aren't any.

Where and When

  • St. James Theatre
    246 West 44th Street
  • Show Times and Tickets
  • Previews: April 14, 2009
  • Opening: April 27, 2009
  • Closing: June 5, 2009
  • Run Time: 1 hour,40 minutes (no intermission)
  • Genre: Drama
  • Advisories:
    Mature audiences
    Partial nudity

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