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Theater: Babbitt in Cathay

2 minute read

Marco Millions, by Eugene O’Neill, seemed a ponderous, pontifical play when it was first produced in 1928, and it has not improved with age. O’Neill’s idea was to cast Marco Polo as the go-getting, money-grubbing Babbitt from Polo Bros., Venice, whose travels to Cathay and the kingdom of Kublai Khan result in a grand confrontation of Eastern and Western values. More symbol than satire, the play is a contrived collision of abstractions rather than a felt conflict of human beings.

As O’Neill’s symbol of the West, Marco stands for greed, hypocrisy, ravening ambition,hard-nosed practicality and blind materialism. For the East, the Great Khan and his court personify beauty, love, wisdom, art, and an all-illuminating spirituality. No one can play, in dramatic terms, with such loaded dice. The Lincoln Center Repertory revival salvages what it can by turning Marco into a handsomely mounted, lavishly costumedMarcorama.

Hal Holbrook is bouncy, boyish and blunt in the title role, and David Wayne’s Great Khan suggests a sage who is more than makeup-deep. But Zohra Lampert, as a princess who falls helplessly in love with Venice’s merchant prince, is as woefully miscast as she is woundingly lovely. The recurring plaint about Broadway’s producers is that they do not know a bad play when they see one. Marco Millions raises the question even more pointedly. Why, with all its own resources and innumerable classics to draw from, did the Lincoln Repertory directors shoot their wad on one of the worst?

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