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<.dov class="e">Long Day's Journey Into Night by Elyse Sommer
Even though there's nothing quite like one's first encounter with an indestructibly powerful play, the recently opened revival at the Plymouth Theatre is as close as you can get to that initial Wow! experience. Vanessa Redgrave's lightning fast shifts from showers of flirtatious affection to knife-in-the-heart recriminations are as relentless as the fluttering movements of hands that look authentically arthritic as they play a pretend piano, fuss with a stray wisp of hair, tuck a hankie into the sleeve of her dress. The Tyrone men who are trapped in the web of guilt that envelops the family like the fog that is the pervasive metaphor make this an all-star cast that deserves an honored place in the theatrical archives.
While previous Broadway productions of O'Neill's fourth Pulitzer Prize winner preceded
CurtainUp's existence (1956, 1962, 1986 and 1988 --see production notes below for details) we did, review a splendid double bill of this and O'Neill's sunnier Ah Wilderness! by the National Asian American Theatre Company in 1997 as well as another Off-Broadway revival at the Irish Rep in 2000, and a West End production starring Jessica Lange a year later. Reading these reviews (see links below) will provide plot sumaries as well as evidence that what O'Neill wrote in "tears and blood" is the stuff of enduring drama and that these roles bring out the very best that an actor has to offer. For anyone wanting an on-the-spot plot summary, my favorite is Les Gutman's nutshell sized one: Father -- cheap, drunk, actor; mother -- sad, deluded, lonely, addict; elder son -- unsuccessful, drunk; younger son -- philosopher/poet/sailor, drunk, sick.
There's no question that Vanessa Redgrave is the pivot around which everything in this Journey revolves. The almost imperceptible shift in expression accompanying the ferocious bi-polar mood swings, mesmerize and entrap you as they do her husband and sons. A single sentence can deliver a whole lifetime of disappointment as when she counters her husband's denial of spying on her --"This is no prison!" -- with "No, you can't help thinking it's a home."
Brian Dennehy throws his own brand of bulky charisma into the role of the actor whose fear of poverty is as devastating to his career as to his familial relationships. He is particularly touching in a scene of camaraderie with the ailing Edmund, which like every moment that even remotely smacks of warn feekubgs turns into painful confrontation. As for Edmund, Robert Sean Leonard is simply superb. When he counters his father's remembrance of his hardscrabble youth with his own seagoing experiences, he breaks your heart. If you have any doubt that he is the playwright's stand-in just listen to the wry ending of his speech: "It was a great mistake my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea-gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!"
Phillip Seymour Hoffman's sharp-tongued, alcoholic older brother Jamie is the least O'Neill-like portrayal-- but it works. When he drops his cynical veneer and warns his brother to beware of him (the part of him that's jealous of Edmund's talent) there's no missing that he too is an integral a part of this mother of all dysfunctional families. Not to be overlooked in heaping praises on the acting, is Fiana Toibin. As the housekeeper Cathleen she has the smallest role but it is an important one, demonstrating as it does that only an outsider living in this household can remain untouched by the enveloping fog of tragedy.
This production's must-see qualities are in no small measure due to Robert Fall's attention to telling details -- like the portly Dennehy's climbing on the table to unscrew a light bulb that is an assault to his skinflint sensibility, his pulling his untied robe over his head in a mock imitation of Mary as the nun she once toyed with becoming, the constant embraces to emphasize the vicious circle of accusation and apology, love and hate.
Santo Loquasto's recreation of what is now known as the Monte Cristo cottage (for the play that earned the senior O'Neill enough money to buy it) is comfortable but just shabby enough to give substance to the negative comments about it by Mary and James and Edmund. Brian MacDevitt's lighting supports the overhanging gloom that keeps the sunshine from penetrating this house that's not a home, even when it breaks through the fog. While the darkness of the final act makes sense, it may prove something of a strain for theater goers accustomed to ninety-minute theatrical repasts. On the other hand, the four hours of this dramatic gourmet meal go by a lot faster and will stay with you a much longer than a lot of the fast food being served elsewhere.
Reviews of other Long Day's Journey productions: NAATCO Production
Irish Rep Production
For links to other O'Neill plays and more about the playwright see our Eugene O'Neill Backgrounder
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