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A CurtainUp Review
A Moon For the Misbegotten
By Elyse Sommer
Until Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards found that power in the 1973 production of A Moon For the Misbegotten, written between 1942 and 1943 as a sort of fictional mass for his brother, it was viewed as a rambling and verbose postscript to his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night. It was, in fact, forged from an episode in the first act of that play, focusing on the oldest Tyrone son (and modeled on James O'Neill), an alcoholic actor who while on a visit to the Tyrone estate to settle his parents' will spends a cathartic night in the arms of his tenant farmer's daughter.
The revival at the Morosco was dubbed by its company as "The Resurrection Play" since Jason Robards undertook the part just after a near fatal car accident and its legendary director José Quintero had just given up drinking. It was also credited with helping to bring young audiences back to the theater (surprise?!?) and proved O'Neill scholar Travis Bogard right when he declared Moon "doomed to failure without superb acting" since no subsequent production ever recreated the magic of those 314 performances.
Until now. Cherry Jones who has been quoted as saying that Dewhurst's ghost hangs over her own interpretation of Josie Hogan need worry no longer.
To get the comparisons out of the way. Her Josie is not as fiery and sensuous as the raspy-voiced Dewhurst's. She is softer, less aggressive. Her blunt haircut is a style seen on some of the smartest-looking women about town. Its squeaky clean, shiny plainness is somewhat deceptive so that it takes a bit to get past the All-American girl, snub-nosed prettiness and see the woman who according to O'Neill's stage directions is "almost a freak" -- oversize, five feet eleven in her stockings, and weighting around one hundred and eighty " or as her father so inelegantly puts it "an overgrown cow."
By the time she has helped the last of her brothers escape from the hardscrabble homestead (the very first scene), however, we forget that we are watching an actress and see only Josie Hogan. During the rather slow tempo expository first act she's feisty and playful -- having fun bickering with her shantiest of shanty Irish dads (Roy Dotrice) and joining him in getting the best of a nearby estate owner (Tuck Milligan) whose only reason for talking to them is to complain about their roaming pigs. Yet she's very much a woman with yearnings. When Jamie Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne -- talked about but not present during the first act) -- finally comes on stage, little signs of vulnerability beneath the backwoodsy tough banter between him and Josie point the way to the shattering finale. When she cradles him against her bosom in the unforgettable finale, the love and sadness that light up her face break your heart. You don't have to be religious to feel a sense of redemptive warmth stirring deep inside you.
Fortunately, with Gabriel Byrne as Jamie Tyrone this Moon shines very brightly indeed. Like Jason Robards, the Irish actor who's best known to Americans for his film work, is magnetic but not handsome. His Jamie is pale and wasted by years of self-destructive womanizing and drinking. Even his voice seems worn thin. Yet he has enough charm to give credibility to the love Josie has harbored for him since she was twelve. The monologue in which he, his natty brown 20s suit rumpled and worn, pours out his grief and guilt about his misconduct on the train carrying his mother's body to its final resting place is an incredible feat of pained self-revelation. Its length and impact are reminiscent of Hickey's in The Iceman Cometh). The pull between these two lost souls, his recognition of her sensitivity and hers of his, is what acting that doesn't look and feel like acting is all about.
Director Daniel Sullivan has wisely cut the play's original four acts so that it breaks just once, but it still moves at a leisurely pace, especially during the first comic act. Theater goers like the man I overheard exclaiming "Whew, that's a lot of words!" should be aware that Eugene O'Neill is wordy. Today's 90-minute, intermissionless plays would probably have struck him as aberrations.
Mr. Sullivan's gradual and artistic transition from humor to heartbreak gives Roy Dotrice leeway to initally overdo the Irish roughouse jocularity. Fortunately, Dotrice is good enough to make us see his Irish cutup as part of a triple portrait of ordinary people as actors on the stage of life. Phil Hogan's Irish drunk act, like Jamie's glibness and Josie's "tramp" covers up a more serious self. The transition to that self makes Josie's future with him a fate somewhat less awful than that of Cherry Jones' other old maid heroine with the cold and unloving father in The Heiress. Tuck Milligan, making only one brief appearance, never gets a chance to reveal anything beyond his standard issue rich twit persona. Paul Hewitt, in the even smaller part of the last Hogan brother to fly the coop -- or to be exact, the pig sty -- fares better, using his brief scene to establish the Hogan family dynamic.
The production values match the fine performances. Eugene Lee's wreck of a farmhouse is surrounded by rocks and boulders without a blade of grass or a flower bed to soften the dreariness and lack of amenities of these poor farmers surrounded by wealthy estates. Pat Collin beautifully lights that long night under the moon. But the light that shines brightest is the one generated by Ms. Jones and Mr. Byrnes. While they are not destined to have a future together in this play one hopes that they will be reunited another time, preferably in a play that allows them to be sensual as well as sensitive -- which would also give Ms. Jones a deserved respite from passionate virgin roles à la The Heiress and Pride's Crossing.
Ticket buying tip: The Walter Kerr is not a huge theater so even the rear of the orchestra will provide good sightlines. A CurtainUp reader who bought a ticket at TKTs during previews was very happy with her fourth row mezzanine seats right on the aisle and says even two or three rows further back would have been fine, as would seats in the side sections through #s 10 or 11. The two row balcony is not advised for any but the most budget constrained -- really high up and far back.
For CurtainUp's backgrounder on Eugene O'Neill and links to reviews of his plays go here.