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A CurtainUp Review

Long Day's Journey Into Night

None of us can help the things life has done to us. They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever.
--- Mary Tyrone.


Brian Dennehy,  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vanesssa Redgrave and  Robert Sean Leonard
Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vanesssa Redgrave and Robert Sean Leonard (Photo: Joan Marcus )
The Tyrones are back in town, reeling us into their private agonies -- lacerating each other, and us, with their recriminations and regrets. It's a long day's journey indeed, from 8:30 to midnight in play time, 4 hours (including 2 intermissions) in real time. But oh what a memorable journey. Though I've visited the Tyrones' shabby Connecticut cottage several times, their agonizing love-hate relationship leave me drained and exhilarated each time. O'Neill's title remains one of the most descriptive and poetic to grace a Playbill cover.

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.

LINKS
Reviews of other Long Day's Journey productions: NAATCO Production
Irish Rep Production
London Production
For links to other O'Neill plays and more about the playwright see our Eugene O'Neill Backgrounder

Long Day's Journey into Night
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
Cast: Brian Dennehy (James Tyrone), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Cavan Tyrone), Philip Seymour Hoffman (James Tyrone Jr.), Robert Sean Leonard (Edmund Tyrone) and Fiana Toibin (Cathleen).
Set and Costume Design: Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Richard Woodbury
Running time: 4 hours, including 2 intermissions
Plymouth Theatre, 236 W. 45 St. (Broadway/8th Av) 212/239-6200
3/09/03-8/31/03; opening 4/26/03.
Tues- Sat @ 7PM, Sat @ 1PM, Sun @ 3PM --$100, $85, $60
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 8th performance
Notes on Previous Productions
Eugene O'Neill wrote Long Day's Journey Into Night between 1939 and 1941 but it was not produced until three years after his death. Following is a list of some of the best known productions and featured actors:
1956 The World Premiere at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden, starred Lars Hanson, Inga Tidblad, Ulf Palme and Jarl Kulle. Directed by Bengt Ekerot.
1956 The American Premiere at the original Helen Hayes Theatre, starred Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards, Jr. and Bradford Dillman. Directed by Jose Quintero. It ran for 390 performances.
1962 Broadway Revival at the Cort Theatre on Broadway but in Swedish --with Georg Rydeberg, Inge Tidblad, Ulf Palme, Jarl Kulle and Catrin Westerlund.
1971 Promenade Theatre, Off-Broadway-- with Robert Ryan, Geraldine Fitzgerald, James Naughton and Stacy Keach. (available as an audio).
1971 National Theatre in London -- with Laurence Olivier, Constance Cummings, Denis Quilley and Rinald Pickup.
1976 Brooklyn Academy of the Arts -- directed by Jason Robards, with Zoe Caldwell, Kevin Conway and Michael Moriarty.
1986 Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway-- with Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher and was directed by Jonathan Miller.
1988 Neil Simon Theatre, Broadway --with Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, Jamey Sheridan and Campbell Scott and directed by Jose Quintero.
1991 Royal National Theatre, Broadway -- with Timothy West, Prunella Scales, Sean McGinley, Stephen Dillane and Geraldine Fitzgerald and directed by Howard Davies.
2000 Lyric Theatre, London -- see our review
Ther play has also been filmed and videos still available include ea 1962 version starring Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as well as the Jonathan Miller version with its overlapping dialogue that starred Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher.

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