I went to Baltimore last weekend to see CenterStage’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!. The program was full of fascinating information about the play and its author, but it neglected to mention one irresistible piece of trivia for which I unfortunately couldn’t find room in my review of the production, which will be appearing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
Anybody who knows anything about American theater knows that George M. Cohan, Broadway’s very own Yankee Doodle Dandy, starred in the original 1933 Broadway production of Ah, Wilderness! It was the first time Cohan had ever acted in a straight play of any significance, and by all accounts he was terrific–but he wasn’t the only star of the show. Who played his sixteen-year-old son, the painfully earnest writer-in-the-making that O’Neill based on himself when young?
The answer, I’m staggered to say, is Elisha Cook, Jr., the very same character actor who later moved to Hollywood and spent the rest of his long life playing weirdos and misfits in such well-remembered films as The Big Sleep, Born to Kill, The Killing, The Maltese Falcon, One-Eyed Jacks, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Rosemary’s Baby, and Shane.
What’s more, it turns out Cook was really, really good in Ah, Wilderness! According to Brooks Atkinson, the veteran drama critic who reviewed Ah, Wilderness! for the New York Times:
As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos. Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage
Aren’t you glad you know that now? I sure am.