A CurtainUp Review
Mourning Becomes Electra
By Elyse Sommer
Because Electra finds O'Neill in his most florid and verbally spendthrift mode, and unspooling his Greek plot with an over-abundance of very un-Greek-like Freudian twists, it's rarely staged. The last New York production was in 1972 at the Circle in the Square with Coleen Dewhurst as Christine Mannon (O'Neill's Clytemnestra) and Pamela Payton-Wright as her daughter Lavinia Mannon (Electra). Consequently, most people (myself included) are familiar with the play through the text or a DVD of the 1947 movie for which the usually effervescent Rosalind Russell just missed winning an Oscar for her scary Lavinia.
All this makes the New Group's revival highly anticipated by O'Neill watchers and anyone with a serious interest in the modern American Theater. No wonder that the Acorn theater was packed at last Saturday's matinee even though most New Yorkers are more accustomed to doing chores or brunching at that hour.
Those familiar with the New Group's productions won't expect anything as big star powered and lavishly staged as the revival mounted by the well-funded Royal National Theatre four years ago (see link at end of this review). However, they would not be remiss to anticipate that this gloomy saga of jealousy, adultery, murder and guilt would be given a lively, interestingly and astutely cast production, especially with the company's artistic director Scott Elliott at the helm. Unfortunately, lively is hardly an adjective that I would use to describe what Elliott and his actors have wrought.
Elliott's production seems to beg further trimming. The performances are so overwrought, with actors screaming at each other at a screech level so that when I saw the play poor Lili Taylor's voice went on her several times. Bravo to Taylor for soldiering on, but a less enthusiastic bravo for her portrayal of Christine Mannon which is not this usually excellent actor's finest hour.
Mr. Elliott has not diddled with the basic plot and time frame. The problem with his direction is that he probably should have diddled a bit more to underscore the play's most compelling elements and downplay its melodramatic and psychological excesses.
At a time when countless Iraq veterans suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome, Orin Mannon's (Joseph Cross) fragile emotional state upon returning from a war that made him an unwilling hero resonates with special meaning. Orin's little speech addressed to Hazel (the play's girl next door, an okay performance along with another small role, by Phoebe Strole) seems prescient: "Sometime in some war they ought to make the women [like Hazel and the others who waved him off after his father and sister pushed him into uniform] take the men's place for a month or so. Give them a taste of Murder! Let them batter each other's brains out with rifle butts and rip each other's guts with bayonets! After that, maybe they'd stop waving handkerchiefs and gabbing about heroes!" However, this anti-war statement would be more powerful in the hands of a more experienced actor.
A seasoned actor is even more necessary to play Lavinia, O'Neill's counterpart to Electra who was Agamemnon's grieving daughter bent on avenging her father's murder, and his play's central character. Perhaps Elliott cast Jena Malone, an actress with a very meager stage resume, in hopes for a star is born performance. To her credit, Malone, like the rest of the cast, knows her lines. She is also more realistically cast than filmdom's Rosalind Russell who was close to forty when she played the role that called for someone in her early twenties. However, her performance lacks nuance. She's better during the early scenes when she plays the angry avenger, her shortcomings become more and more evident once she appears, dressed in the same green favored by ther detested mother and, at least temporarily, turning Lavinia into a flirtatious Scarlett O'Hara type. What's more, with her cropped hair, references to her having the same magnificent hair as her mother come across as somewhat ludicrous.
Instead of hiring a wig designer to ease the challenging shift from angry young woman in funereal black to her mother's persona, once she's driven that mother to suicide and her brother to murder and into her own arms, Mr. Elliott has the new Lavinia light up a cigarette, as Taylor's Christine does in the first act —a touch that might have been appropriate if the action had been moved into the post World War I jazz age but which seems incongruous for this period.
Mark Blum whose work I've admired both on and off Broadway is miscast as Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon. He seems stiff and awkward but not really awful enough to drive his wife to the extreme act she concocts to end the union that disgusts her. To be sure, in O'Neill's version, the man is just a sexually demanding, repulsive husband, unlike Agamemnon who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to his enemies and thereby giving his wife a more understandable motivation for murder. Blum is thus stuck with being an inept lover and, though he enters in the imposing uniform of a high ranking officer, he doesn't convey the aura of a powerful leader and patriarch. He seems simply uncomfortable with his daughter's sexually charged adoration.
Lili Taylor is similarly trapped in a role that instead of giving her convincing motivation, makes her a Hedda Gabler who, instead of shooting herself after her honeymoon, stays in the marriage she regrets long enough to produce two dysfunctional children.
By contrast to the main characters, the chorus of townspeople is quite good. This chorus was O'Neill's way of condensing at least some of his wordiness by relating events through the gossip of the New England Coastal town's citizens rather than the straight naturalistic dramatic story telling. Elliott makes good use of the theater's aisles for having the characters enter and exit. However, like O'Neill, he has not really made enough use of the chorus as a means for condensing the action.
As for the staging, the usually on the mark set designer Derek McLane's use of scrim curtains doesn't really evoke the aura of the period. The only solid wall, a double door up stage, is opened and closed so often that it becomes downright annoying. I did like the lighting and Grammy Award winning Pat Metheny 's original music but it is like all such theater music, incidental and not something to stick to the ears.
To repeat what I said earlier, this is a rare opportunity to see this rarely done play by one of the last century's great American playwrights. Therefore, despite being disappointed that my over four hour time investment wasn't as rewarding as I'd hoped, I'm glad I went.
Like me, you may leave the theater and order the movie DVD from Netflix But if you want to experience this play live, do what our politicians do all the time. Take what you can get. Mourning Becomes Electra isn't likely to pass this way again any time soon.
For a fully detailed plot synopsis and Lizzie Loveridge's interesting comments about O'Neill's connection to the Greek myth, see her review when she saw Mourning Becomes Electra at the National Theatre here. For more about Eugene O'Neill's work and links to other of his plays we've reviewed, see our O'Neill Backgrounder.