James Tyrone (Bill Camp) is wearing a face mask and shorts, and bringing home Starbucks takeout, while Mary Tyrone (Elizabeth Marvel), in sweatpants, is doing yoga, near a pile of Amazon boxes, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a TV set turned to CNN with the latest news from Chris Cuomo about the coronavirus. James may still be the once great Shakespearean turned hack actor, Mary the once beautiful convent girl who gave up a promising music career to marry a matinee idol; as the day progresses, they and their two sons (Ato Blankson-Wood and Jason Bowen) are still full of regrets and recriminations, drink and drugs. But this long day is no longer taking place in 1912 in director Robert O’Hara’s slickly abridged and unwisely updated version of Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy about his family, deemed one of the greatest American plays ever written. They are now living in the pandemic of 2020.
There has been no shortage of productions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” – six on Broadway alone, starting in 1956, 15 years after O’Neill wrote it and three years after his death; and most recently in 2016 with Jessica Lange (followed by one starring Jeremy Irons at BAM two years later.) O’Hara (Tony-nominated director of Slave Play, but also a playwright in his own right) is trying something different. He wants us to see a parallel between the pandemic lockdown in 2020, in which everybody felt trapped, and the emotional lockdown of the four members of the Tyrone family, who feel trapped by their past. In the original, the youngest son Edmund (the obvious stand-in for the playwright) is even suffering from a possibly fatal disease and Mary struggles with addiction, which arguably suggests the modern-day opioid epidemic.
O’Hara, though, is not content with just doing a visual makeover, and allowing the audience to pick up on the parallels on our own. He has cut the play nearly in half. “We have not added a single word nor have we changed the order,” O’Hara writes in an introduction to the revised script. “We have simply removed text to allow the play to live in the contemporary.”
This feels a bit disingenuous, more like a parlor game than respect for the text, when you get down to particulars. An exchange in the original between the father and the oldest son about the youngest –
Jamie: What did Doc Hardy say about the Kid?
Tyrone: It’s what you thought. He’s got consumption.
Jamie: God damn it!
Is changed to
Jamie: What did Doc Hardy say?
Tyrone:It’s what you thought.
Jamie: God damn it!
Since O’Hara has promised not to add a single word, nobody says “COVID” but the word “consumption,” which appeared a dozen times in the original, has been erased. We’re thus encouraged to think he has COVID. But this doesn’t really work: If the initial signs and symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to tuberculosis, the incubation period and prognosis are vastly different, and in any case how could the Tyrones possibly refuse to utter its name; it’s blaring constantly from their TV set!
Now, it would make me sound out of touch with current reality to complain that a four-hour play has been trimmed to “just” two hours long without an intermission; that’s still quite a commitment for a theatergoer, especially when you have to wear a mask. And, in truth, few of the individual passages excised (and the character eliminated, the maid Cathleen, who mostly listens to Mary’s monologues) would attract any passionate advocates. But there are some things noticeably lost in the hastened pace that comes from the abridgement: The suspicion that Mary is relapsing feels too quickly confirmed now, and turns her into a junkie, first and foremost. Such a change in perception argues for O’Neill’s length as central to the effect of the play, the sense of a journey from light to darkness over a single day, but a day that revisits a lifetime.
The shortened length and quickened pace were not the most jarring aspects of the new production. O’Hara is so literal-minded in his interpretation of the play that after her family talks about Mary being like a ghost, we see her climbing the staircase, with a projection of her skeleton, as if she’s passing through an airport Xray machine.
And then there’s the transposition of the action to 2020. We live in a much more informal age than existed in 1912. O’Hara captures this change not just in the costume and set design, but in the way the actors move. But the veneer of propriety in the original, I realize now, helps make the corrosion underneath feel that much more devastating, and, ultimately, more moving.
If O’Hara’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” still offers its satisfactions – above all, as a showcase for its fine quartet of actors — this was in spite of his changes, not because of them.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is at Audible’s MInetta Lane Theater through February 20, 2022.q