The Hairy Ape, American Theater Company. It’s no accident that Eugene O’Neill made the protagonist of his 1922 expressionistic powerhouse a stoker on an ocean liner: for O’Neill, such steel behemoths epitomized everything thrilling and terrifying about American modernity. Crashing relentlessly forward, the ocean liner both pays tribute to the force of human ingenuity and crushes the luckless human beings feeding its mighty engines. O’Neill’s hero, a young firebrand with the emblematic name Yank, thrives on coal dust, convinced that because he fuels the engine of modernity he and his fellow stokers are the only ones who belong in the world–all the rest are “tripe.” But when the socialite daughter of the ship’s owner descends into the hold and faints at the sight of the “hairy beast,” Yank’s understanding of his social place is turned upside down.

As written, Yank brims with youthful fury, always crashing forward. Yet under Damon Kiely’s direction, James Leaming’s Yank seems middle-aged, a spent man prone to stew over things. He may work himself into the occasional frenzy, especially when his pride is wounded, but he quickly settles back into a static funk–an interpretation that ignores the text and leaves the play without an engine. The rest of the large cast act up a storm in an effort to shove the play along, but its urgency can come only from Yank, who here seems largely unchanged by what should be a tumultuous journey.