Eugene O'Neill's only long-form comedy, the 1933 "Ah, Wilderness!," has been given an uneven production, helmed by Steven Robman at the classical theater company, A Noise Within. Coincidentally, we in Los Angeles had a golden opportunity to see O'Neill's two "autobiographical" plays: the 1941 "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (all 3.4 hours of it) at the Geffen Playhouse, a painful look at his real family, and this overly-pleasant production of his wishful-thinking view of a family.
It's July 4th, and father, Nat Miller (Nicholas Hormann), mother, Essie (Deborah Strang), eldest son Arthur (Ian Littleworth), middle son, Richard (Matt Gall), daughter Mildred (Katie Hume), and youngest child, Tommy (Samuel Genghis Christian) live in a middle-class house in New Haven, Connecticut. Nat owns the local newspaper, and since it's 1906, Essie's a stay-at-home mom.
Essie's brother, the alcoholic Sid Davis (Alan Blumenfeld) lives with them, along with Nat's 40-ish spinster sister, Lily (Kitty Swink), who is in love with jovial, over-the-top Sid, a man who, if only he could pull it together, might marry her.
Richard, not quite 17, is trying his damnedest to be a Young Turk, rebelling against the perceived conformist and conservative society around him, quoting Nietzsche, Swinburne and Omar Khayyam. He's also hopelessly in love with Muriel McComber (Emily Goss), his age, but is thwarted by Muriel's religious curmudgeon father, David (Marcelo Tubert), that his Act Two visitation to the local brothel, where he meets a live-wire whore, Belle (Emily Kosloski), ends in amusingly drunken fiasco.
O'Neill was clearly trying to create this alternative, sweet family that is so the opposite of the reality reflected in "Long Day's Journey," and to a degree, he manages to make his alt-family real. But Robman's direction distracts from the construction by adding period songs, which open and close the play, adding sentimentality to the mix; it doesn't work well enough, merely slowing down the action.
Robman's casting is fine, with Strang, Blumenfeld, Hormann, Littleworth, Hume and Tubert doing what they do well, creating credible characterizations. Gall, a fine actor, looks a decade older than Richard, overshadowing his excellent work, unfortunately; odd casting here, although ANW should bring him back in a role that is a better fit.
Musical director, Jonathan Tessero shepherd's the actors' voices well, never embarrassing, but seldom adding to the thrust of the play. The result of all this is sweet, but disappointing, not allowing the evening to be more interesting, although it is fun to hear another generation's pop music.
Garry D. Lennon's costume design is satisfactory to the period, on Frederica Nascimento's attractive set. The entire show is charming, never dull, but not particularly intriguing, either. Let's give it a C+ for all its efforts.
"Ah, Wilderness!" plays through May 20 at A Noise Within Theatre, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena, 91107. For tickets or information, call 626-356-3100 x1 or visit http://www.anoisewithin.org