By Joseph Hurley
BEFORE BREAKFAST, by Eugene O’Neill "3 Short Plays." Rip Torn’s Sanctuary Theater, at Theater 135, 135 West 42nd St., NYC. Through Oct. 22.
Eugene O’Neill wrote his one-act play, "Before Breakfast," a monologue for an aggrieved, exasperated young wife, in 1916, and scheduled its debut performance on Dec. 1 of that year as part of a bill of brief plays staged by the Playwrights’ Theater, better known as the Massachusetts-based Provincetown Players, in their first New York season. The company had recently settled into a small theater on Macdougal Street, a space the group would very soon make world famous, largely because of the work of the Irish-American dramatist.
O’Neill was 28 when he wrote "Before Breakfast," which deals in part with an unhappy marriage which was caused in the first place by a working class girl’s having been impregnated by the unstable son of a somewhat wealthier, better-situated family.
The writer was working fairly close to the bone when he wrote "Before Breakfast," because only six years earlier his own early marriage to Kathleen Jenkins had been motivated by an inadvertent pregnancy.
Seldom produced in recent years, "Before Breakfast" is on a New York stage again, in a solid, somewhat innovative production directed by actor Rip Torn for his Sanctuary Theater Company, and starring his youngest daughter, Dan’ Torn.
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"Before Breakfast" is generally produced as a relentlessly hectoring 40-minute monologue, with the husband, Alfred, shaving in the offstage tenement bathroom as his wife, nearing the end of her rope, prepares a meager meal before setting off for her job in a clothing factory.
The hapless husband, an unsuccessful writer, is named but unseen in most productions, except for a single moment in which his "sensitive, long-fingered, trembling hand" reaches around the kitchen doorjamb to secure a basin of water for shaving. In the initial production, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill played "Alfred," mainly to experience the audience’s reaction to a lengthy monologue, since he was in the throes of planning a full-length play, "The Emperor Jones," which would comprise similar speeches.
That Macdougal Street production of "Before Breakfast" was the last time O’Neill ever acted in a play.
In Rip Torn’s energetic production, "Alfred" is seen and sometimes heard, almost as much as his complaining wife is, first as a pair of bare feet beyond the kitchen doorway, belonging to a restless sleeper who fidgets, turns over, and finally rises, unable to shut out the words of his unhappy spouse, and then in full, as he moves around the room beyond the kitchen. Those feet, and everything above them, belong to Sanctuary company member Tom Pearl.
In the new staging, mainly because of Dan’ Torn’s flexibility and her fragile grace, the wife, generally rendered stridently and shrewishly, emerges as vastly more sympathetic than is usually the case, which somehow seems to deepen the play and to increase its ultimate impact.
While "Before Breakfast" runs 40 minutes without ever seeming padded, the two plays the follow, "Box," by Juliana Francis, and "Pandora’s Box of Sweets," by Chay Costello, each running just 15 minutes, both seem attenuated and dismissable, despite the earnest work of Funda Duyal and Susan Tierney, respectively, the actress entrusted with the two one-act monologues.
In "Box," Duyal plays a Ukrainian sex worker displaying her considerable charms behind a protective pane of glass as she follows the unheard instructions phoned in by her unseen "customers."
"Pandora’s Box of Sweets," the monologue that closes the bill, is a vague, cloudy affair in which a pretty girl, Tierney, wearing a crown and a costume recalling both a high school prom dress and a hoop-skirted frock suitable for Scarlett O’Hara or one of her sisters or cousins, extracts one item of pastry after another from a box into which she cautiously delves, and carefully impales them, one by one. in the tines of her sparkly headgear.