Next Theatre Company

A curious pattern is beginning to emerge this season at the Next Theatre Company. Three times in a row, the ensemble has taken on a tedious script and proceeded to give it a terrific production, as though daring the material to undo the performers’ talent.

The first–a musical adaptation, Goblin Market, based on a peculiar “children’s poem” by the 19th-century writer Christina Rossetti–was salvaged by Kathy Taylor’s beautiful singing and Jeffrey Lewis’s fine musical direction. Memoir, by Canadian playwright John Murrell, was a painfully contrived, pretentious account of the last days in the life of the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. The script was excruciating, but Barbara Patterson played Sarah with such extraordinary concentration that she endowed her character with some dignity and passion.

Now the Next Theatre is doing Anna Christie, one of the weakest plays Eugene O’Neill ever wrote. Even he hated it. “I couldn’t sit through it without getting the heebie-jeebies and wondering why the hell I wrote it,” the playwright wrote to a friend after seeing a revival in 1941, 20 years after it premiered.

But once again a Next Theatre production has been saved–by two outstanding performances. Linnea Todd plays Anna with so much insight and complexity that she almost makes plausible the character’s unlikely transformation from prostitute to virginal lover. And Si Osborne, who is rapidly becoming one of the most versatile actors in Chicago, plays her Irish lover with so much strength and charm that he wins the audience over quicker than he does Anna.

Still, the play doesn’t work very well. Yes, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and had a lengthy run on Broadway. Yes, it was made into a famous movie, starring Greta Garbo in her first talkie. But these facts don’t make it a good play. O’Neill knew what he was doing when he tried to exclude Anna Christie from his first collection.

In a way Anna is worth seeing precisely because it is so bad. It’s fascinating to see one of our greatest playwrights fail, and to look at the reasons why. Anna is a reworking of O’Neill’s 1919 play, Chris Christopherson, based on a jovial Swede the playwright actually knew. In the early version, Anna is an innocent secretary who arrives from Leeds, England, to visit her father, Chris. He becomes upset when she falls in love with a seafaring man like himself. Chris wants better for his daughter and keeps grumbling about “that old davil sea.”

Chris Christopherson opened in 1920, but it had so many problems the New York premiere was canceled. O’Neill set out to rewrite it, but in the process his focus shifted–as its changing titles indicate. Chris Christopherson became The Old Davil; and finally, when O’Neill recognized the daughter was emerging as the central character, he changed the title again, to Anna Christie.

In the process, O’Neill transformed Anna from a sweet, tea-drinking secretary with an English accent into a whiskey-swilling, man-hating prostitute. Yet–and this is the fundamental problem–he clung to his original plot. Instead of recognizing that character must dictate plot, the young playwright–who had written mostly one-acts up to this point–tried to fit the new Anna into a preexisting narrative. This forced him to combine his two versions of her, and as a result the hard, bitter prostitute of the first act becomes a soft, romantic lover later on. It’s a dubious transformation, to say the least.

The play begins in Johnny the Priest’s New York saloon, modeled on the waterfront dive where O’Neill actually lived when he was a down-and-out young writer. Chris comes in drunk and finds a letter from Anna waiting for him, announcing that she is coming to visit. The last time he saw her, she was a five-year-old child in Sweden. After his wife died, he had sent her to live on a cousin’s farm in Minnesota to keep her away from “that old davil sea,” but she found trouble anyway, becoming a prostitute.

Anna, broke and desperate, agrees to live in the cabin aboard the coal barge her father pilots. On their first trip, Chris picks up the survivors of a shipwreck, including a brawny, boastful Irishman named Mat Burke, who is enchanted by Anna. Over the next few days, he wears down her resentment of men and asks her to marry him. This elicits violent objections from Chris, who refuses to let his daughter marry someone like himself, someone who will be at sea most of the time. During the confrontation, Anna reveals her past, which proves tormenting information for both men, and the rest of the play involves Mat and Chris coming to terms with the news.

This is where the play shows its age. I can imagine a man being upset when he discovers the woman he wants to marry is a former prostitute, but no man I know would come unhinged the way Mat Burke does. Obviously O’Neill is that upset about Anna’s transgression, and I’m willing to accept the proposition that a woman’s “virtue” was once so important to men; but having accepted that, I can’t believe the transformation that takes place in Anna and in Mat. This is where the play falls apart.

It’s also where Linnea Todd and Si Osborne generate the sparks that make this production so enjoyable. Their performances are heartfelt and convincing, despite the script’s implausibility, and they turn the play into a satisfying love story. That’s not exactly what O’Neill had in mind–he claimed he’d deliberately introduced a hint of pessimism at the end of the play to suggest that the “happy” ending was doomed. Nevertheless, he wrote a happy ending, and that’s how these two actors play it.

The rest of the production, under Harriet Spizziri’s direction, is good enough. Matt DeCaro seems uncomfortable as Chris, as though the Swedish accent takes up too much of his concentration, but he still manages to convey the old man’s foolish attempt to blame all his troubles on the sea. And Robert G. Smith’s set provides vivid locales for the saloon, the barge, and the inside of Chris’s cabin.

Once again, the performances prevail over the material, and this production, like the play itself, ultimately has a happy ending.

But by confronting bad scripts head-on, hoping to subdue their inherent flaws, the Next Theatre Company seems to be playing a theatrical form of chicken. Such risks are admirable in their way, but in its first year as an Equity theater, the ensemble can’t really afford to keep hurtling itself at bad scripts. Like the real game of chicken, it’s a stupid way to die.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.