By Michael Hillyer
Although there are many fine moments in director Jonathan Kent’s overwrought production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, delivered by proven actors of the highest caliber, in this case the sum is not equal to the assembled parts.
Admittedly, my expectations of this star-studded revival were high, but while this fog-shrouded version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night produces lots of individual star-turn histrionics, it is surprising that one of the acknowledged masterworks of the American dramatic canon cannot produce so much as a lump in the throat, let alone a tear. So, let’s start there.
I felt nothing. I wasn’t moved, not once, either to laughter or tears, during this marathon production of Eugene O’Neill’s posthumous dramatic masterpiece. O’Neill called Long Day’s Journey “this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood,” but this production is keeping all the pain to itself.
Part of the problem is that the actors have been allowed to get weepy pretty often, and we are unconstrained to join them, but a larger part of the problem is the director’s failure to connect them, in any meaningful way, or to pull them together into any semblance of a real family. With the exception of John Gallagher Jr., who is either miscast or misdirected as Edmund, the actors do fine individually, but they are acting in their own vacuum. No one seems to be really listening to anyone else; lines are often over-run, or in some cases dropped, which lends the whole effort a false sense of being under-rehearsed. I am certain that is not the case, but nonetheless this production lacks the edge of precision one would expect from a cast with this kind of marquee wattage, tackling a play of this stature. Doubtless, there are a lot of lines to be memorized here, but hey – this is Broadway, people.
Given that the performances do not cohere into anything like a uniform playing style, there is nothing to do but evaluate them individually. Michael Shannon is delivering the best performance of the night; his depiction of the drunken, foundering Jamie Tyrone is razor sharp and tellingly true, by turns caustic and hurtful, then immediately regretful. He is the only one onstage (besides Colby Minifie as the cheeky Irish maid, Kathleen) who seems to have stepped right out of 1912. Gabriel Byrne doesn’t even try, rather calling to mind an amiable, occasionally irritable college professor than a former matinee idol capable of playing the best roles of Shakespeare, in the age of Forrest and Booth, who lives in fear of the poorhouse in spite of his wealth. Mr. Byrne has missed the sheer miserly iron of the man, caught so coldly on screen by Ralph Richardson, and missed it so completely that it made me miss Philip Bosco, who has retired but who would know just what to do with this part. The screen star Jessica Lange, who only ventures out on the live stage to perform the great roles of the modern American drama (Blanche Dubois, Amanda Wingfield, Mary Tyrone) could probably have used some smaller roles along the way to good advantage. She’s doing the same thing she did in A Streetcar Named Desire many years ago: she dials it back early on and then brings it on hard at the end. This sort of works for her, but along the way she is unable to interact in any organic way with the other actors, as she isn’t really listening to them, and at times she seems to be starring in Long Day’s Journey All About Me. Unlike Streetcar, there is no difficulty in hearing her, due in part to an excellent sound design by Clive Goodwin, and also due in equal measure to her efforts to project her lines. However, she is rarely able to get out more than a few words on a single breath, and the overall effect is to slow everything down to a crawl. Not something you want on a long journey. John Gallagher Jr. looks like a young Eugene O’Neill around the mustache but any other resemblance pretty much ends there; he coughs quite well, to his credit, but comes across as far too callow to have traveled around the world at sea, and lacks not only bite but bark as well.
No question, this journey is long. At nearly four hours, it’s not a hike but an odyssey from the seven o’clock curtain to the company curtain call at 10:45. Nevertheless, the playwright has divided his voyage into four acts, anticipating that his audience will need to rest between legs of the trip. This present mounting ignores all that, and instead gives it to us relentlessly in two lengthy flights with one lousy layover: there is only one intermission. Criminy. Good luck with that line at the ladies’ room after the show. The first act is an hour and a half, which would get you from midtown to New Haven by train. The second act, at a whopping two hours and fifteen minutes, could get you all the way to the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London. Informed of this by the usher as he seated us, my first thought was “they’re not letting people leave.” Bingo.
I thought I had packed for my trip, having had a late lunch and sporting a candy bar in my jacket pocket, to stave off any hunger pangs at intermission. I should have brought a carry-on, packed with some pangs of emotion, for when I got hungry for some real good theatre.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Eugene O’Neill, with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon, John Gallagher Jr., and Colby Minifie. Directed by Jonathan Kent; sets by Tom Pye; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Clive Goodwin; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Peter Lawrence; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, Denise Cooper; associate managing director, Steve Dow; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolper, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager; in association with Ryan Murphy. Playing through June 26 at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-719-1300. Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes, one lousy intermission.