NEW YORK — A good, solid, granite-like revival of Eugene O'Neill's play "A Moon for the Misbegotten" opened Sunday night at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It's granite that could actually benefit from a crack or two, a little roughing up, some distinguishing theatrical characteristics beyond solidity and respect.
Good is good, no question. With this cast, though, greatness wouldn't be out of the question.
We're talking about big shoes and, in the Steve Martin parlance, cruel ones. When Cherry Jones was a teenager, she saw Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in the celebrated early 1970s revival of "Moon," which Jones later said helped her realize what kind of actress she'd like to become.
Now, more than a quarter-century later, Jones (Tony Award winner for "The Heiress") takes on the formidable role of farmer's daughter Josie Hogan, a walking, talking Madonna/whore conundrum. (Previously Jones played Josie at Baltimore's Center Stage.) Gabriel Byrne fills Robards' shoes, playing the wastrel alcoholic James Tyrone Jr., based closely on O'Neill's brother, first seen in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
The long night Josie and James spend together, under a lunar glow alternately baleful and full of promise, forms the crux of this 1943 play. It didn't make it onto the boards until 1947, when a poor out-of-town reception derailed its Broadway hopes.
Then and now, the play's a fooler. It begins as hearty Irish folk comedy, shifts into a piercing confessional tone and lands on a note of stoic farewell, exemplified by the final three words spoken--"forgiveness and peace."
There's no question that Jones, whose clipping file really can't take any more uses of the adjective "luminous," has what it takes for this role, so memorably inhabited by Dewhurst and, later, by Kate Nelligan.
There's no question that Byrne, here working his grimly set jaw around the sort of tough-guy argot he doled out in the Coen brothers movie "Miller's Crossing," has terrific stuff in him. He lets it out--sparingly--in James' bitterest moments, none more starkly effective than the near-rape of Josie.
Right or wrong, it's probably this production's indelible moment. In the scene, a drunken, delusional James suddenly treats the woman he loves like he treated "the blonde pig" he picked up on the train bearing his mother's body. It goes farther than you're expecting it to: Byrne slams Jones up against the clapboard house, and in its aftermath, Jones' face reveals all the shock and rage and pity of a woman who isn't sure what to forgive and what to forget.
Jones and Byrne don't lack for a strong third point to this play's triangle, either. (The minor roles, prissy millionaire T. Stedman Harder and Josie's younger brother, Mike, are nicely handled by Tuck Milligan and Paul Hewitt.) As Phil Hogan, the most blarney-filled tenement farmer in 1923 New London, Conn., Roy Dotrice is wonderfully, almost shamelessly entertaining, making like a wizened old Irish Puck as he stage manages a rendezvous between his daughter and his landlord.
Director Daniel Sullivan staged O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" recently for Lincoln Center Theatre. Problematically, he handles "Moon" roughly the same way. He's a smart director, especially with contemporary bittersweet comedy ("The Heidi Chronicles," and the more recent "Dinner With Friends"). Within the space allowed by scenic designer Eugene Lee's claustrophobic, tumbledown farmhouse setting, he guides the piece with what you might call the Ease of the Unseen Hand.
Those who don't mind a more imposing directorial presence when it comes to the classics may be frustrated. Just as Sullivan's recent, reticent "Hedda Gabler" at the Geffen Playhouse begged a question--Is this production holding out on us?--Sullivan's take on these moon-stricken would-be lovers begs the same.
In projects ranging from "The Heiress" to "Pride's Crossing" to "Tongue of a Bird," Jones has proved herself a marvelously attentive onstage presence, confident and dominant but not domineering. She's aurally attuned; in interviews, she has talked about the necessity of locating a character's voice before the characterization can be called complete.
The only thing, really, missing from Jones' fine performance is a crucial thing: a distinctive voice, as well as the kind of ferocity than can only come from loneliness. Though Byrne's intonations tend toward low-keyed introspection, he comes through in James' most desperate moments. Mourning becomes this actor, and when he lets his guard down and the tears fall, it's unusually affecting.
Dotrice isn't--not quite. He's doing a turn (a terrific one) more than creating a character, and it throws the play's triangle out of whack. The result is an excellent actor settling for a skate atop a lovely role's granite surface.
So goes the production. It's worth seeing, because Jones, Byrne and Dotrice are. All the same: Since O'Neill wrote such an odd and wonderful play to begin with, why not go for all its emotional extremes, as well as everything in between?
* "A Moon for the Misbegotten," Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Through June 18. $25-$70. (800) 432-7250.