Buntport channels its inner O'Neill in The World Is Mine

The members of the Buntport Theater troupe have always been interested in the creative process. They've imagined Alexandre Dumas creating his three musketeers after reading a novel borrowed from the library; suggested what would happen if Ovid, having burned the manuscript of Metamorphoses in a fit of pique, came face to face with one of his creations on the road, the woman-turned-cow Io; and woven the strands of Franz Kafka's own history into the plot of his best-known work, Metamorphosis.

In The World Is Mine, Buntport gives us Eugene O'Neill in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy and thinking about beginning work on Long Day's Journey Into Night, the play that dramatized the life of the author's booze-drug-and-self-pity-soaked family and that he famously said was written in tears and blood. (In an interesting piece of artistic cross-fertilization, Paragon Theatre will open Long Day's Journey Into Night next week.) The Buntporters treat this somber material with their usual fizz and humor without in any way trivializing it. They tackle O'Neill's self-absorption head on: The set represents the inside of his mind, and the three other characters — all mustachioed like O'Neill himself — exist only as he sees them, or pretty much as he sees them; every now and then, one or another hints at an alternative self the playwright hasn't noticed. The action takes place in the living room O'Neill envisions for his play; it has a sofa, piles of books, patterned wallpaper, a desk — or are there two desks? It takes a second to realize that much about this realistic-seeming set is out of kilter: in addition to the two desks, there are two chandeliers and two telephones; there are also a plethora of light switches and an oddly too-low entrance space. The kind of tape theaters use to mark the placement of props and furniture outlines almost everything. A profile of Erik Edborg, who plays O'Neill, is mounted on the back wall, facing left; opposite it, the same portrait has been flopped so it's facing right. Or rather, facing itself. We half notice that there are glasses everywhere. And once the action begins, we find that the entire place bleeds alcohol as characters pour drinks from almost every available object, from a chandelier to a telephone.

One of the playwright's sons has committed suicide; he is estranged from his surviving children, a drifter son and his daughter, Oona, who, to his fury and chagrin, has married a clown: Charlie Chaplin. O'Neill is being taken care of by a nurse, Cathleen, who reminds him of Oona and whom he will transform into the Tyrones' dim, flirtatious Irish maid in Long Day's Journey Into Night — hence the absurdly high heels she wears along with her mustache. His wife, Carlotta, is on the scene, too. She talks about creating a space where he can write (as the real Carlotta did), but mostly she babbles about the Chinese furnishings she plans for the house they intend to build and parades around in a succession of elegant dresses and surprising hats. The final character is Erland, come from Sweden to give O'Neill the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature, which he must present to the playwright in the hospital because he is too weak to travel. Erland sometimes morphs into Jamie, who represented O'Neill's loved and hated older brother in Long Day's Journey.

As always, Buntport manages to lighten ponderous material while finding in it unexpected depths. One trick the company uses brilliantly is to concretize the metaphorical; the booze-soaked room, for instance, tells us everything we need to know without the characters having to stagger and slur. Oona's image appears unexpectedly on a screen; O'Neill finds there's no way to get rid of the costume his actor father wore in The Count of Monte Cristo, which reappears every time it's bundled out of sight. What better way to communicate the iron hold of the past? Then there are the twin portraits. They're clearly a sign of O'Neill's narcissism — he's trying to figure out which profile is the better — but they also represent the artist confronting himself, the man who must write versus the man who'd do anything, including kill himself, to avoid the pain of writing.

The World Is Mine raises the central question about Eugene O'Neill's artistry: the fact that his focus is so relentlessly, claustrophobically inward. In their humorous and unpretentious way, the Buntporters — actors Edborg, Erin Rollman (Carlotta), Hannah Duggan (Cathleen) and Brian Colonna (Erland), along with co-creators SamAntha Schmitz and Evan Weissman — suggest that when feelings run deep enough and genius is sufficiently capacious, personal obsession becomes universal and transforms into art.

The World Is Mine