“None of us can help the things life has done to us,” Jessica Lange says as Mary Tyrone. Mary is talking about one of her sons, a drunk, but she herself, a convent girl who married a matinee idol, has become a morphine addict. At the end of the night, she will descend into madness.
By then, nearly four hours after the play began, this sixth Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s epic drama about his own family has become essentially a play about his mother. This is not likely a deliberate choice by director Jonathan Kent. Rather, it is due to Lange’s superior performance.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
When the play was first produced on Broadway in 1956, 15 years after O’Neill wrote it and three years after his death, the critic Brooks Atkinson declared that it singlehandedly had given American theater “size and stature.” It’s a judgment that largely holds 60 years later; many deem Long Day’s Journey Into Night the greatest American play ever written (certainly in the top five.)
This burdens any production to measure up, and any audience to put up with – and give into — the endless accusation, confession and contrition by the four members of the Tyrone family during a long day in August, 1912 in the Tyrone summer home in New London, Connecticut.
The Roundabout production of Long Day’s Journey starring Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr., which has opened at American Airlines Theater, is a must-see for those who have never attended a live production of O’Neill’s masterpiece before. The experience is helped by an unobtrusive but affecting design – Tom Pye’s realistic, subtly disintegrating set and Natasha Katz’s ominous lighting – that draws us inexorably into the foggy night of this family,
But for those who saw the 2003 Broadway production, for example, with Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard, the new production is likely to feel in some ways disappointing.
All three men in the current production are terrific actors, who have done better work elsewhere.
Gabriel Byrne plays James Tyrone, modeled after O’Neill’s own father, James O’Neill, an impoverished Irish-born immigrant who became a skilled Shakespearean actor, apprenticed to the likes of Edwin Booth, but who gave up on his early artistic promise to gain fame and fortune in a popular melodrama that he performed for 30 years. In the play, O’Neill depicts the father as a ”stinking old miser” who unscrews the light bulbs, preferring that the family be in the dark than have to pay for an electric bill, and who plans to send his youngest, Edmund, to a “state farm” for treatment of his consumption (tuberculosis) rather than have to shell out for a private sanitarium.
Byrne, himself Irish-born, is a fine actor, one of depth and subtlety, as evident in such screen roles as the therapist in In Treatment. It is a pleasure to see him as James Tyrone listening and silently reacting with credibly engaged facial expressions and gestures to the other members of the family during their long monologues. He always seems to be digging beneath the surface. It makes sense to learn that, before he became an actor, Byrne was an archeologist.
But the playwright also would have us see Tyrone as a hammy actor who can’t quite turn it off even when with his family, and here Byrne’s subtlety works against him. That doesn’t stop him from credible explosions of irritation, and bouts of Irish stubbornness, some of them amusing: He insists that Shakespeare was Irish Catholic.
Michael Shannon has made a splendid specialty of playing eccentric characters – he was crazy evangelical agent turned mobster Nelson Van Alden in “Boardwalk Empire”, and the paranoid psychopath in both the play and the film of Tracy Lett’s Bug. But I’ve also seen him take on modern classic roles such as the stage manager in Barrow Street Theater’s acclaimed production of Our Town and the doctor Astrov in Soho Rep’s version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Here he does a credible turn as Jamie, the older brother who wastes his life on booze and broads, and resents the rest of the family, sometimes with good cause, and regrets his own dissolution. But as the day turns into night, and Jamie turns to drink, Shannon leans too heavily for my taste on the eccentric mannerisms of a literal fall-down drunk.
John Gallagher Jr., won a Tony at age 22 for his performance as Moritz the naïve failing student in the original 2007 production of the musical Spring Awakening (presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theater!), following it with the starring role as Johnny the rebel in American Idiot. (He is probably best known at this point for his recent portrayal of Jim on the HBO series “The Newsroom”.) Although Gallagher himself is now 31, he somehow comes off as too young as Edmund Tyrone, the stand-in for the young Eugene O’Neill himself. True, Edmund is supposed to be just 23 years old, and Jamie says to him: “You’re only an overgrown kid! Mama’s baby and Papa’s pet.” But this is mostly Jamie’s jealousy speaking. Edmund has been around the world as a sailor, and, though nervous like his mother, he also has a measure of sophistication. So when Edmund barks his resentment at his father as if a carping adolescent, it’s jarring.
These three men make Mary the center of the family, if for no other reason than that they suspect that her recent rehab has failed, and she has gone back on drugs, so they watch her.
“Why are you staring,” Mary says, her hand fluttering up to her head. “Is my hair coming down? It’s hard for me to do it up properly now. My eyes are getting so bad and I never can find my glasses.” We soon learn that her garrulity is a symptom of her drug abuse.
But Lange makes Mary the center of attention for the audience as well. She is not just a fading ethereal figure, but a robust woman whose entire life unfolds before us — alternatively innocent, skittish, coquettish, sneering, full-out furious, resigned. It’s a memorable performance to put on our collective mental shelf besides her Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire and her Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie – her only two previous forays on Broadway.
At 225 minutes (including intermission), Long Day’s Journey Into Night can wear down an audience, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it leaves us more open to the characters’ confidences, the way fatigue might lead us more open to people in our own lives. And in a way these are people in our own lives. We know that Edmund will go on to a sanitarium. It was at a sanitarium in 1912 that Eugene O’Neill decided to become a playwright.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is on stage at American Airlines Theater (227 West 42nd Street, 10036, between 7th and 8th Avenues) through Sunday, June 26, 2016.
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