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On the road to perdition

A stellar cast conquers O'Neill's thorny masterpiece 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' on Broadway.

May 07, 2003|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — You can spend half a lifetime going to plays without ever knowing a bracing, full-bodied production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Call it what you will: a carefully chiseled, heavily lifted slab of pain; a four-hour bender; an emotional nerve ending a mile long and 10 inches thick. As O'Neill put it, "this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood" -- a theatrical distillation of his own family, re-imagined as the four Tyrones -- is foremost and forever a mettle-tester for each generation's actors. If an actor can say he or she has participated in a successful production of O'Neill's knotty masterpiece, if a director can say the same, then that truly says something.

It couldn't be said of director Robert Falls' Goodman Theatre production a year ago, despite the best efforts of Brian Dennehy and company. Falls' mother died during rehearsals, which may have led to an understandably incomplete and unfinished air to a play steeped in rage, recriminations and sadness.

But now, at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre, it's a different and inspired story. The new "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which opened Tuesday night after several press previews, may be remembered years hence for what the spellbinding Vanessa Redgrave, as Mary Tyrone, brings to O'Neill in terms of raw, unpredictable emotion. It may be remembered for Philip Seymour Hoffman's dissolute, self-loathing Jamie, the wastrel son, corking and uncorking his fifth of venom like Lucifer's own barkeep.

Yet it'll likely be remembered as a fiercely well-acted ensemble achievement, alive and awake every second. Its virtually uncut four hours feel like two. And with Redgrave at the center, tapping into some remarkable, even nutty extremes without ever playing the morphine-infused Mary or O'Neill false, Falls' second shot at "Long Day's Journey Into Night" tones up this Broadway season like no other revival.

The physical production and Falls' staging haven't changed since the Goodman version. Scenic designer Santo Loquasto's depiction of the dank, shabby New London, Conn., summer home still sits on the Tyrones in a fairly obvious way. But you don't care now. The actors demand attention. Dennehy, the sole holdover from the Goodman version, now feels fully in the game.

Redgrave is tough to match, though. What a performer she is. Her avid eyes do their own little dances of death all evening, and improbably (though much of it is scripted, in O'Neill's famously copious stage directions) she laughs a lot in this production. It sounds unlikely, even ridiculous. But her swirl of desperate merriment, constant movement, all the sudden, arresting bursts of anger -- at one point she grabs Robert Sean Leonard's Edmund by the neck and throws him to the ground -- keep the audience and the actors on their toes.

This is a Mary unafraid of tragicomic mother love. Cooling her consumptive son's forehead, Redgrave picks up a huge, 1912-size picture magazine and uses it like a fan. You could feel the breeze in Row H.

O'Neill made much of Mary insistently drumming her rheumy fingers in moments of high duress. Redgrave takes the notion a step further: At the close of this version's first act, the drumming becomes a long-forgotten piano exercise. It's the music we hear for real at the end of the night, after the morphine has brought Mary straight into the fog of the past.

In the same way Janet McTeer brought "A Doll's House" to a new, nakedly powerful level a few seasons back on Broadway, Redgrave forces her colleagues to engage moment to moment. It works. In Chicago, Dennehy -- perhaps surprised at how much more difficult it is to grab an audience with this play than his previous Goodman outing with Falls, "Death of a Salesman" -- came into his own only in Tyrone's reminiscence of his theatrical glory days. Now, that moment is no longer alone. He now lends a layer of sadness to everything that feels active, not passive.

Sporting a depressed little mustache, Hoffman, a favorite film character actor of many, brings a whiff of unlikely movie star glamour to this project. His choices are big, like Redgrave's; early on, when he ribs the Old Man about his ham-actor days, he zips into a riotous "Othello" bit, bowing and scraping like Iago. Such moments explode in huge laughs -- good ones. Hoffman may indulge himself in one too many screamfests, but otherwise this is lovely work. And he matches up beautifully in physical terms with Dennehy (who's in much better shape). When Dennehy and Hoffman are passed out, blotto, it's like twin profiles in alcoholism. And when Redgrave and the ever-intelligent, always-welcome Leonard square off, their elegant profiles look right together.

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