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A CurtainUp Review
A Moon for the Misbegotten

The London Production of A Moon for the Misbegotten Moves to Broadway -- Cast, Director and Stylized Western Grunge Look Intact

A Moon for the Misbegotten
Eve Best as Josie Hogan and Kevin Spacey as Jim Tyrone
(Photo: Simon Annand)
It can be a joy to see exceptional performances and new staging ideas give a fine play an exciting new life. Take Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For the Misbegotten which for years after it was written was considered more of a postscript to Long Day's Journey Into Night than a masterpiece in its own right. Then Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robarts revealed the emotional dynamite beneath its Irish blarney —she as Connecticut tenant pig farmer Phil Hogan's daughter Josie and he as Jim Tyrone, the Hogan's alcoholic landlord and former Broadway actor.

I wasn't a theater critic when I was lucky enough to see that minor into major play transforming production live in 1973 (it's still available as a film) and it remained fresh in my mind seven years ago when I reviewed the revival starring Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne. I thought if anyone could match, if not eclipse my memories of husky-voiced Dewhurst's Josie, it would be Jones, who in my book is one of the modern theater's acting treasures. Jones, while tall and with her own distinct voice, did not fit the text's physical references to Josie Hogan as well as Dewhurs, did manage to get into the Irish hi jinx of the first act and, more importantly, totally draw you into the big redemptive scene with the doomed Jim Tyrone. However, her Josie did not eclipse Dewhurst's though Byrne, with whose work I was less familiar, turned out to fill Robart's shoes quite memorably.

At any rate, while I had twenty-five years in between seeing the Dewhurst/Robarts production and the Jones/Byrne revival, it seemed almost too soon to have Moon. . . back on Broadway. After all, it is a problem play that requires you to sit through the lengthy comedic first act (not O'Neill's strong suite) before getting to the payoff: Josie and Jim's powerfully sad moonlit long day's journey towards a redemptive but inevitably unhappy ending. Even with its double intermission cut to one so that it ends in ten minutes short of three hours, it's a long "sit." That said, the current revival comes with the pedigree of "The Old Vic Theatre Company Production." That means an intact transfer, with the Old Vic's own artistic director Kevin Spacey playing James Tyrone and a well-known Brit, Eve Best, making her American debut. As anyone who's followed Spacey's career, it was his performance and this production that marked a positive turnaround in his stormy Old Vic helmsmanship.

Since I agree with most of Lizzie Loveridge's evaluation of the play during its London run, I'll just add some comments to her Brit's eye view.

While Kevin Spacey brings some unique and very watchable touches to his interpretation of Jim Tyrone, his emphasis on the hammy actor side of the character tends to emphasize the vaudevillian aspects of the play and make the piece-de-resistance finale slower than usual to ignite. But ignite it does, and both Spacey and Best make that scene worth waiting for. With Spacey's hammy actor persona at times coming off as a case of Spacey showing off his own special way with O'Neill's world (his resume after all includes the James Tyrone of Long Day's Journey as well as a remarkable Hickey in Iceman Cometh ), he as much as his co-star seems, at least initially, not to inhabit his character without letting the actor at work show through. Both shine equally in their final scene together.

Like Lizzie, I very much admired Colm Meaney 's Phil Hogan. Actually, like Eve Best his casting is somewhat against type. Though taller, younger and less grungy than called for, he gives a wonderfully balanced portrait of crafty old codger and underneath it all, a caring father.

Finally, a word about the asymmetrical wooden farmhouse that even if more dimensional rather than just a sort of free-standing weathered wood assemblage, would hardly hold Josie and Phil, let alone the family before the boys all left. I have nothing against stylized staging and the working water pump adds an intriguingly realistic touch. However, the aura is American seen through a British lens, more a combination western frontier town and hillbilly hamlet than a farm that's run down but surrounded by estates and a short railroad ride from New York City.

Important Note: All evening performances begin at 7pm. At the performance I attended at least 20 people arrived in tme for the more usual 8pm starting time. Unless you want to skip the first act and see only the high-powered finale, mark your calendar in red so that you won't forget the early curtain time.

A Moon For the Misbegotten-- Broadway, 2000
Our O'Neill Backgrounder

Broadway Production Notes:
Directed by Howard Davies
Cast: Eve Best (Josie Hogan) and Kevin Spacey (Jim Tyrone) Colm Meaney (Phil Hogan), T Stedman Harder (Billy Carter), Mike Hogan (Eugene O'Hare).
Scenic Design by Bob Crowley.
Costume Design by Lynette Mauro.
Lighting Design by Mark Henderson
Original Music by Dominic Muldowney
Sound by Christopher Shutt.
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes plus one intermission
Brooks Atkinson, 256 W. 47th St., (Broadway/8th Av)
Tickets: $82.50 to- $102.50; $26.50 same day student seats.
Tuesday 7:00pm, Wednesday 2:00pm & 7:00pm, Thursday and Friday 7:00pm, Saturday 2:00pm & 7:00pm. Sunday 3:00pm.
From 3/29/07 to 6/10/07; opening 4/09/07
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on April 13th

London Production Review by Lizzie Loveridge

I'm a liar. I'm a louse. — Jim Tyrone

I see that Eugene O'Neill's play A Moon for the Misbegotten last played in New York in 2000. I predict that New Yorkers will see it again in 2007 or 2008. Why? Because Kevin Spacey gives the performance of a lifetime and this needs to be shown on Broadway. I was fortunate enough to see him in the exemplary The Iceman Cometh a few years ago at the Old Vic in London and know how Eugene O'Neill's words can bring out the best of Spacey's emotional acting range.

As in The Iceman Cometh the early scenes lead up to Spacey's entrance here with much talk about his character, the landlord and actor, Jim Tyrone. Jim enters with a walk with knees bending out like Charlie Chaplin and swinging not a cane but a billy can, and chanting the Latin verses that priests use to accompany the distribution of incense in a church.

Howard Davies directed Iceman for the Almeida, Old Vic and Broadway in 1998, and Mourning Becomes Electra, at the National Theatre for which Eve Best won best actress at the Critics' Circle awards. As a director he takes O'Neill's words and gets the most intelligent performances from his actors. What is special for me about O'Neill is the completely natural way in which his plays evoke such strong emotions, agonising pain and terrible regret. I never feel that what O'Neill elicits is in any way contrived or untruthful. In A Moon for the Misbegotten he also displays an amazing amount of Irish humour. Cast with Spacey is Colm Meaney as the Connecticut farmer, Hogan. Meaney was born in Ireland so there is no doubt that his accent is authentic and he is at his most magnificent and emotive as the drunken father. I noticed for the first time O'Neill's use of Irish language when Josie (Eve Best) reprimands her father and Jim, for using words superfluously, using words like blether, blabber, Blarney and whisky drooling to describe their flow of language.

It is problematic these days casting Josie in a world of actresses thin enough to parade on a catwalk. Seemingly every other line in the text refers to Josie Hogan's size. We are told she is a great cow of a woman, large breasted, "a daughter as strong as a bull." Although Eve Best is tall, she is not really heavy enough to fit O'Neill's description of Josie, as she says, "You know I'm an ugly, overgrown, lump of a woman.". Her Josie is at times witty and amusing but because of her lack of physical size, I felt that Best is so busy imbuing her character with solidity that she loses some of the empathy due to this lonely woman. Acting but not being "the cow" she always seems to be carrying a weight on her shoulders. Sitting inelegantly with her knees apart so the audience can see up her skirt gives us glimpses of Josie's character when relaxed and spontaneous and there's a great scene is when she and her father mercilessly rib and tease their stuck up neighbour. Here we see Josie as she was meant to be, relaxed, witty and bitingly articulate and are reminded of all those Irish plays where the men are charming, feckless drunkards and the women work hard and hold the family together.

But there is no doubt that this is Spacey's show. He is at turns, moving, tragic, angry, pathetic— a fellow human being in distress. It's a tour de force, whether he is sinking his head into Josie's breasts and giving a leering side glanced grin at the audience, or perfectly timing that movement of his head when he is too drunk to focus, or when given a drink, kicking his heels in the air and flapping his arms like a chicken. As Tyrone describes the nights with the tart in the train with his mother's body, Best looks straight ahead at the audience, her disgust rolled up with disappointment. The shocking elements which got the play banned in the 1940s are no longer really shocking so they don't work as well, but it is really uncomfortable to watch the pain of these two unhappy people. "I've seen too many dawns creeping grayly over too many dirty windows," says Jim in a poetically regretful and vivid line.

Bob Crowley's asymmetrical wooden farmhouse is tumbled down in places. Josie uses the water pump to refresh herself, when cornered by her brother, she dunks her whole head to hide her embarrassment. In the distance is the bright blue sky with a few clouds and telegraph poles that go on for ever giving the stage an amazing depth. In the foreground, are an old iron bedstead and broken down furniture.

If you can see only one play in London this season, let it be A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Colm Meaney, Eve Best and Kevin Spacey
With: Billy Carter, Eugene O'Hare
Design: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Paule Constable
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Costumes: Lynette Mauro
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6628
Booking at the Old Vic to 23rd December 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th September 2006 performance at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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