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A Moon for the Misbegotten
London Production Review by Lizzie Loveridge
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.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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