Eugene O'Neill's plays often go on and on. "Journey Into Genius," an hourlong dramatization of O'Neill's early manhood tonight on PBS' "American Playhouse" (Channel 15 at 9 p.m., Channel 28 at 10 p.m.), errs in the opposite direction. At only an hour, it has a sketchy, once-over-lightly feeling.
It begins with young O'Neill's suspension from college and ends with his initial New York success and the final illness of his father. His foreign travels are hardly mentioned. In one late scene, a woman suddenly shows up as his wife, and they're already arguing about his extramarital affairs. At this point, we didn't even know he was married. Several other characters appear without proper introductions.
The look of the show, directed by Calvin Skaggs, is bare and artificial. The studio backdrops tend to be blank and dark or else wildly colored.
Apparently it's supposed to be an impression of young O'Neill's life rather than a comprehensive biography. But the process of abstraction doesn't really add anything to compensate for the lack of detail.
It does give the program a stagy quality, but it's a more rarefied staginess than the kind you get in O'Neill's plays. Lanie Robertson's script might work better on a real stage than it does on a screen.
On the other hand, the acting, especially that of Matthew Modine as O'Neill, is low-key and naturalistic. It helps keep the journey on track, but it doesn't do much to illuminate the use of genius in the title. "Journey Into Genius" won't prompt anyone who's unfamiliar with O'Neill to read on.