Bobby Cannavale doesn’t have a cold, but these days he sounds like he’s come down with something. A layman’s diagnosis is easy: He’s got a heavy case of Eugene O’Neill, specifically The Hairy Ape, the playwright’s quasi-Expressionist drama from 1922 about a lumpenprole coal-stoker’s journey through a nightmare-scape of urban inhumanity, now in an astonishing, multidimensional staging by British director Richard Jones in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory in New York City, March 25-April 22.
Cannavale plays Yank, the chief “fireman” in the belly of a ship traveling between New York and Southampton, who is so stung by the comment of a visiting heiress—she visits the stokehole and calls him a “filthy beast”—that he abandons his work and drunkenly wanders the streets of New York City, only to end up at the zoo in a fateful exchange with an actual simian.
It’s a path-breaking curiosity of a play that is seldom revived; the Wooster Group did a vigorous deconstruction in 1996, and I saw an unconvincing rendition at Irish Rep 10 years later. But Jones’s vision, executed by a crack team of designers (Stewart Laing on sets, Mimi Jordan Sherin on lights) and an extraordinary cast, headed by David Costabile, Becky Ann Baker, and Cannavale—in a role, as The New York Times’s Ben Brantley put it, “that has just been waiting these many decades for Bobby Cannavale to step into it”—makes this nearly century-old work come to pungent, vivid life.
I spoke to Cannavale—an Emmy winner and Tony nominee, including for his towering, wounded lead turn in The Motherfucker With the Hat—by phone on a Sunday after a seven-show week. He began by apologizing for the ragged condition of his voice.
I was going to ask about your voice later, but since you brought it up, I’ll start with that. Tell me about your voice—it’s a striking instrument. Has it always had that delicious rasp?
It’s pretty deep, it’s pretty raspy. I have a lot of power in my voice. I actually prefer in this role when it’s a little bit overused, when I’m a little tired. Usually the Tuesday show is not my favorite, because I’m a little too fresh. It only takes doing it one time to beat me up, and then the shows get better for me later in the week, when I’m sort of more tired. And luckily I haven’t completely lost my voice yet; there have been nights where I’ve struggled. There are a lot of little rogue ways I can find in my deeper register, where I’m a little gravellier than other times. It’s certainly the kind of character my voice is well suited for.
It does look like a real workout.
It’s a pretty taxing role. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know it would be this hard. I’m really beat up. This part was really written for a 27-year-old, and I’m turning 47 in a few weeks. It’s funny—little things that shouldn’t hurt me, like stepping really fast to the right when I’m facing left, are giving me a hard time. These are things you should be able to do, but your body’s like, Whoa, I need a little more warning. I’m constantly popping things: I popped my groin the other night, I tore my meniscus a few weeks ago, and I’ll have to get that fixed when the run is over.
It’s a pretty physically demanding role. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s not done very often. It’s not like a play you could run for six months without changing out the actor. It’s like Fela! or something. It’s fuckin’ hard.
What I had wanted to start with was a question about what it’s like to work in that space, with the turntable, the huge ceiling, all the design elements. It doesn’t look like anything else I’ve seen. Does it feel strange to play in it?
It feels better than I thought it would. Richard did a really good job of preparing us, constantly explaining what it was gonna look like. He and I had a week at the Armory, just the two of us, before anyone else showed up. We didn’t rehearse in the actual main hall, but I walked around it a lot and got a sense of the size of the place. I’ve never worn a mike before, but it’s obviously something we need. The sound design is really key in this show. It takes a real imagination to fill that space; you can’t just do the show like you’re in a black box, you have to have a real vision of how to fill that space, and Richard does. I didn’t know who he was when this project came up, so I asked all my director friends and they were like, “You gotta work with him.” I do think he’s a visionary.
Where did you fit into that vision?
I never really had to do a major adjustment. Richard was very low-key about that stuff. He never talked about style or about the scope of the play. He only talked about circumstances, about motivation, about what I was doing in each moment. All that staging stuff came together in a way that was like witchcraft—I don’t know how it happened. Yes, you know that you’re performing in a huge space, there’s a huge balloon floating over there. But he never overemphasized that; he emphasized what we’re doing at all times. Every character, even the people wearing masks in the background, he would ask all the time: What’s your character’s name? What’s his story? That seemed to take precedence over the style of the play. It was about: What was this guy’s journey, what were the obstacles in his way. I mean, I know what’s going on around me onstage—I’m not insane. But it was a pretty normal way to rehearse a play.
Still, early on, with those moments on the ship where everyone freezes after the ship lurches, then tumbles out of the freeze on a cue—that takes some precise choreography, right?
Even stuff like that, we would start by talking about an actual voyage—it’s an eight-week voyage from New York to Southampton—and realize how a boat would move, and we’d move in unison. So there was a realistic bedrock, and then we would work our way up to those stylized moments. Richard would shape those once we got into the theatre. But like I said, all of the characters have names. Richard made everybody write a backstory, and there was a hierarchy among the stokers. The audience may not notice those levels so much. But if you’re able to buy all the stylization, it’s probably because there’s something real behind it.
Since you mention backstory, that’s something I wondered about after seeing the play. What is Yank’s history before this play? There’s a sense in which he doesn’t seem to have any, as if he was born in the forecastle of that ship.
I think that’s strangely O’Neill’s intent; I think you’re onto something there. We’re all trying to get back to nature; the truest self is in nature. I think it’s not an accident that Yank ends up at the zoo and tries to have a relationship there, and he unfortunately misjudges that relationship. He thinks at the beginning that he really belongs in the stokehole, but then that sense of himself is shaken. He then feels like he belongs in a place that’s unfortunately unattainable in the modern world. Like he says, “I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in Heaven, get me? I’m in de middle tryin’ to seperate em.”
So I’m not necessarily going to ask you what backstory you came up with for Yank…
Those things are like actor’s secrets, right?
They’re also boring to anyone else but me.
You grew up in Union City, N.J., and your dad worked in a factory, right?
I come from a long line of people who worked in factories. My grandparents worked in coat factories, my dad worked in a chemical plant. My mother worked in a hospital. So they’re laborers. I spent my life going to company picnics. The bosses were never there; it was all the people who worked the shifts with my folks. And there was a certain order: There was the clown, the aggressive guy, the alpha male, the political guy—all these archetypes exist in every factory across America, and in every sort of group there is. And that’s important in feeling like you belong to something.
You know, I hadn’t read the play since I was a kid, when I was 21 or so. It didn’t mean much to me then. Then I read it again last year, right when the presidential primaries were heating up. It all came back from my childhood, and all the talk about the Rust Belt, about people losing their jobs. It felt like, this is just like what’s happening across the country. It didn’t take too much for me to get the play this time.
There’s another aspect that you seem to plug into really naturally, and that’s O’Neill’s dialect: “youse,” “oith,” “dese” and “dose,” all that. The only other guy I’ve seen who can do it quite like you was Salvatore Inzerillo, who played Rocky in The Iceman Cometh a few years ago. Was that a sound you grew up hearing?
I definitely grew up, on my dad’s side of the family, with my grandmother and grandfather saying “woild” and “goil” and all that. And I’ve gotten to play a lot of guys like that. Now, I don’t walk around my house with Rose [Byrne], who’s Australian, and my little boy talking like that. But I can easily tap into it, and I’m glad I can. There aren’t that many roles that have kind of depth where you also get an opportunity to speak like that. When I read it, I told Richard, “It feels very natural to speak these words.” And Richard said, “Thank God,” because as an English person, it didn’t sound natural to him. I think a lot of actors have trouble with the language, but I found it very, very natural. You know, this is the closest thing to a classical play I’ve ever done. I never did Shakespeare. So this is my version of that kind of play.
You never went to conservatory.
No, I went to high school. I just started working, hanging around theatres a lot. I did a lot of bad plays that nobody saw. But I worked at Circle Rep early on, and I had a lot of great mentors when I was young.
So what made you read Hairy Ape when you were young, as you said you did?
I was a young guy who wanted to be an actor, going to Drama Book Shop and looking at plays. I got a collection of Eugene O’Neill plays, and Hairy Ape was in it, but I didn’t get it. It’s a hard read for anybody. It’s not a very long play: You look and think, Oh, 60 pages, that’s a quick read. But it’s a hard play to absorb; you almost have to be obsessed with it to get it at all. It’s easy to skim through and go, “What was that?” and then just move on to Anna Christie.
Yeah, I haven’t sat down and read it, but it’s clear from hearing it that it’s very broadly drawn, with archetypes more than characters.
Like with any play, you have to get down to the heart of the relationships. In the stokehole, what’s the deal there? Who’s in charge? You have to figure out the hierarchy. Yank is at the top, but every once in a while he gets challenged by “the witch,” which is Paddy, the drunk. He’s got a weird mystical power, from being out at sea, from drinking—he’s a witch. This is a common dynamic that happens in a work situation. Once you establish that, then you look at how everybody feels about that relationship. So it’s not so much archetypes anymore. It becomes very real. People may not know all that work has been done when they watch it, but they can identify it—they can see it.
Not to get too esoteric about it, but this is stage acting—it’s about really finding the deep sort of realism of what’s going on. I don’t want to sound like I don’t know there’s a huge production going on around me; I’m not crazy. But for me the experience is an arc, and it’s very realistic to me.
That’s how it feels, and I doubt the play would work without that grounding. Speaking of relationships, is Yank’s relationship to the heiress, the one whose revulsion spurs him to leave his work and wander the world, something you keep alive in your mind to the end?
Her coming in to the stokehole and seeing him—that’s a tough moment. That moment plays differently for everybody who watches it. For me, it’s about her stepping into that space, and that pollutes it for him—it pollutes his whole sense of being. It’s a mark he cannot get rid of. An outsider has come in and called him a filthy beast, and it shakes his entire world. He later says he’s looking for her, but really he’s looking for that space where he belongs that he can’t find anymore. So she just sets him off on the journey. You know in the movie version—have you seen that?
In the movie they meet and fall in love.
That sounds terrible.
O’Neill just sold it to Hollywood for the money. William Bendix is in it.
I haven’t seen a lot of press on this performance, so I thank you for taking the time to talk about it.
Yeah, I just love doing it, man. I haven’t talked too much about it, I’ve just been in it. It’s one of those things where, when I’m done with it, I’ll be able to say more. I’ve spent so much time with this play by now, I don’t stop to analyze it too much. I was talking to a guy last night, a Eugene O’Neill scholar, and he started to talk to me about the Apollonian versus the Dionysian aspects of the play, and I was like, “Dude, I can’t talk about that.” I can’t play any of that stuff. He was talking about Nietzsche, and I just had to kind of back away. I mean, sure, it’s all in there—I’m not a dummy. I know what the play’s about. But all that stuff doesn’t help me play it.