‘The Hairy Ape’ review: A stunning staging of an expressionist classic

“The Hairy Ape” is playing now at the Park Avenue Armory.

Never again are we likely to see such a massive, thoroughly designed, technically complex staging of an early 20th century expressionist play as the stunning production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 tragedy “The Hairy Ape,” now at the Park Avenue Armory.

Starring Bobby Cannavale and directed by Richard Jones (who previously presented it at London’s Old Vic), everything about it is huge: the venue, the mechanized set design, the seating arrangement, the scale of the performances and the main character’s agony and desperation.

Yank (Cannavale), a burly engine stoker on an ocean liner, who works hard to convince himself and others of his importance in modern industrial society, is shaken to the core after a rich young woman, disgusted by his soot-faced appearance and violent behavior, calls him a “filthy beast.”

Now full of self-doubt and unsure of his place in the world, Yank roams the streets of New York alone, looking for acceptance and somewhere to “belong.” In the process, he lands in jail, gets kicked out of a union office and ultimately winds up left for dead in a gorilla cage at the zoo.

With the audience stacked along a rising yellow tier, the scenes are presented along a revolving circular track, with the expansive armory in the background like an empty abyss. The sets that materialize resemble shoeboxes that confine and imprison Yank. Hazy lighting and discordant music contribute to what is a sensory and environmental theatrical experience.

Cannavale gives a raw, layered and highly physical performance in which Yank is too introspective and sensitive for his own good, ultimately leading to his tragedy. It makes you wonder whether and when we can see Cannavale play the brutish Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar.”

The ensemble reinforces the play’s otherworldly style through synchronized movement, with Yank’s fellow laborers resembling an unthinking pack of wild animals and New York’s upper classes appearing as soulless snobs and Jazz Age partygoers.

“The Hairy Ape” plays through April 22 at the Park Avenue Armory. 643 Park Ave., armoryonpark.org. 3.5 stars

Matt Windman