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A CurtainUp Review
When Long Day's Journey opened on Broadway, three years after O'Neill's death, the playwright's stock had been undervalued by his countrymen for decades. His plays were being performed far more frequently abroad than here. Despite O'Neill's 1936 Nobel Prize, the American public's indifference was such that, as the old saying goes, he couldn't get arrested in the New York Theater District. Critics acknowledged immediately that Long Day's Journey was a posthumous capstone of O'Neill's career. But at that moment, in the mid-1950s, it was unforeseeable that the play would come to be regarded as the greatest achievement of American playwriting and return to Broadway five times in the next six decades.
The current production, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) from the Bristol Old Vic by way of London's West End. Brits bringing the great American play to Brooklyn — isn't that coals to Newcastle? Do we need another Long Day's Journey just two years after Jonathan Kent's acclaimed Broadway revival with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne? The answer is yes and the principal reason is Lesley Manville's complex, insightful interpretation of Mary Tyrone.
Long Day's Journey is O'Neill's dramatic portrait of his own family which, according to his prefatory note dedicating the play to his wife, was "written in tears and blood." Mary is his mother; Edmund (played here by Matthew Beard) is a self-portrait. Mary has been addicted to opiates since Edmund's birth. She and her drug habit are both symptomatic and a cause of the Tyrone family's radical dysfunction.
Of the many noteworthy actresses associated with this role, Manville is among the most suitable and may well be the best fit. Lacking the distracting, albeit fascinating, star qualities of Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave, she inhabits the character completely (as did Jessica Lange). Hers is the least stagy, most convincing performance one is likely to see, with no concessions to vanity or interpretive innovation. Manville seems to bring human experience, raw and unfiltered, to the stage.
Eyre's production starts in a tremendous rush, with the actors speaking so rapidly that their voices overlap and interrupt each other as though they're in a Robert Altman movie. O'Neill's text is famously repetitive, featuring a handful of themes — reproaches, countercharges, and occasional mea culpas — and a myriad of variations on those themes. As this verbal roundelay proceeds, the tempo of Eyre's direction gradually diminishes. By the cathartic final scene, when the whole Tyrone family is reassembled after going their separate ways throughout the day, things are moving at a snail's pace, with Manville delivering Mary's heartbreaking last monologue serenely and almost in a whisper.
The three men surrounding Manville tackle their roles from disparate and somewhat incompatible angles. As paterfamilias James Tyrone, Jeremy Irons makes no effort to tailor line readings or vocal production to his character's Irish origin or long US residence. Irons' fans may be relieved to hear his familiar accent and the distinctive timbre of his voice; but, with the other players attempting to sound American, Irons' Tyrone seems to belong to another production.
Tyrone is a matinee idol and, though we don't use that term any more, Irons is one, as well. He imbues his character with the flamboyance and jaded charm of an aging ham. But the charm disappears in a trice when Tyrone's miserliness and controlling tendencies get the better of him. Irons is at his most affecting in the final act, when Tyrone voices regret about having squandered his acting talent for the monetary rewards of playing the swashbuckling lead in a cheesy melodrama year after year.
Rory Keenan gives Jamie — James Tyrone Jr. &mdash an appealing cockiness that may owe a debt to black and white movies about Broadway and its gangsters. His American accent is consistent and appropriate to the character's social status and privileged education. The real achievement of Keenan's performance is the wrenching way he captures the schizoid quality of Jamie's relationship to brother Edmund, whom he simultaneously loves and envies, encourages and undercuts.
Beard's Edmund has a 21st century patina that seems, initially, a miscalculation. But the actor's virtuosic handling of his fourth act monologue justifies the choice. In his hands, Edmund's despair at being "a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong," turns out to be the epitome of millennial disillusion.
In this beautiful-looking production, it's difficult to identify a boundary between Rob Howell's scenic design and Peter Mumford's lighting effects. Howell has created a Connecticut summer home that hovers between realism and abstraction. The vast walls and slanting ceiling are at once transparent and reflective. Hues of sky and ocean appear on the cyclorama behind, changing as the journey from morning to night progresses. The hardwood floor of the great family room is streaked with blues and greens that bring the Long Island Sound into the house, just as sound designer John Leonard's persistent foghorn invades the final act with a sense of nighttime damp.
The Bristol Old Vic has brought New York a creditable staging of O'Neill's masterpiece. Lesley Manville is giving a performance that's damn near definitive. How fitting that these British Tyrones have made the long journey from southwest England to the city of the great playwright's birth.
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Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Sir Richard Eyre
Cast: Matthew Beard (Edmund Tyrone), Jeremy Irons (James Tyrone), Rory Keenan (James Tyrone Jr.), Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone), Jessica Regan (Cathleen)
Scenic and Costume Designs by Bob Howell
Lighting Design by Peter Mumford
Sound Design by John Leonard
American Stage Manager: Sara Sahin
Presented by the Bristol Old Vic
BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St., Brooklyn)
Running Time: Three hours 20 minutes with one intermissions
From 5/8/18; Opened 5/12/18; Closing 5/27/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 5/10/18 press preview.
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