Those of us who grew up with a keen interest in the theater certainly know the wonderful drawings of Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), the celebrated American caricaturist known for his Broadway portraits. Witty and with a sharp sense of observation, Hirschfeld created elegant line drawings that lifted the work to a high level of modern art. When each new Hirschfeld illustration appeared in The New York Times, as they did so for several decades and for multiple generations, his fans would spend a long time with the drawing, admiring his dead-on caricatures of celebrities and eagerly locating each "Nina," the name of his daughter and whose name he hid in the drawings. Such a lively and fun spirit infuses the caricatures that you would never figure Hirschfeld would make a great interpreter of the work of the more somber playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) much less be a good friend.
A wonderful display of Hirschfeld's interpretation of O'Neill in NYU's Kimmel Center Window Gallery in the Village proves otherwise. Each window is devoted to one play, illustrated with Hirschfeld's documentation of multiple productions over decades - famous originals, beginning with Strange Interlude (1928) as well as many successful revivals, including those on TV and on film. He outlived his playwright friend by nearly five decades, interpreting O'Neill through many posthumous productions, including the original production of the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956).
Hirschfeld saw all the major productions of O'Neill plays, often documenting the productions before they had their official debuts, in rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts. The result is an impressive body of art on the work of a landmark playwright, one who treated the stage as a platform for literature. In interpretations of plays such as A Moon for the Misbegotten, Strange Interlude, Desire Under the Elms, The Iceman Cometh, and Marco Millions, Hirschfeld captured the spirit of a fleeting theatrical moment. Fans of the O'Neill acting canon will enjoy the artist's informed caricatures of the major players, most notably Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, but also many other accomplished actors of other generations.
The exhibit, conceived by Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, President of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, is cleverly designed and curated by the foundation's archivist David Leopold. The exhibit is on display at the Kimmel Center Window Gallery (LaGuardia Place between W. 4th St. and W. 3rd St.; also continues on W. 3rd St. side) through August 31, 2011. Because this is a window gallery facing the street, it's open all day and night. The surrounding area of Greenwich Village figured importantly into O'Neill's career, especially his beginning days with the Provincetown Players and the playhouse they opened in 1916 at 133 Macdougal Street.