A play full of regrets and remorse and profoundly personal, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was the final play that Eugene O’Neill offered for production. The Old Vic Theater Company production starring Kevin Spacey and Eve Best, under the direction of Howard Davies, is showing us the effects of a lighter touch on this great play. One feels from the very beginning that this production is determined to be entertaining, a consideration that should encourage those who would normally fear an evening of dour doings. Purists may be inclined to say this is not be entirely the right affectation for this masterpiece in which O’Neill relentlessly pursues the same ghosts that haunted him throughout his life. At times, however, you may be almost grateful for the choices that Spacey makes as an actor and the pace that Davies delivers as a director.
Neither Davies nor Spacey are strangers to O’Neill, as Davies directed Spacey in the 1999 Broadway production of “The Iceman Cometh.” The prospect of another “A Moon for the Misbegotten” so soon after the one in 2000, that starred Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones, did not fill me with anticipation. That production was generally well received but the consensus was that it still ranked below the landmark production produced in 1973 starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, still considered the closest to defining O’Neill’s world.
Despite the concerted artistic collaboration of Spacey, Best, and director Davies, this somewhat skittish production is not likely going to change the opinions of those who have seen the others. Princeton area audiences may also recall the commendably lively staging by Gary Griffin at McCarter Theater starring Andrew McCarthy only a year ago.
A true poet of earthbound lyricism O’Neill makes his lengthy often humorous diatribes, as particularly refined in “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” fascinating. This is the play that gives voice to the autobiographical soul-searching that connects O’Neill’s own older brother with his play’s central character. The play, set on a Connecticut farm in 1923, is a rather self-serving and purgative portrait of one man’s lifetime of failures.
Anyone familiar with the play will get a chuckle at the set’s centerpiece, the old shanty that looks increasingly unfit for habitation with each subsequent production. It is, nevertheless, craftily designed this time by Bob Crowley. The central characters of Jim Tyrone (Spacey) and Josie Hogan (Best) are unquestionably fit and sturdy enough for all of the harrowing and heartbreaking dramatics that go on around it.
What comes as something of a surprise is the almost recklessly extroverted facade that propels the performance by Spacey, as the tormented alcoholic James Tyrone Jr. Spacey, a superb stage and screen actor who is currently the artistic director of the Old Vic Theater Company, can always be counted on giving a performance grounded in meticulous detail and unexpected flourishes. That his Tyrone has crossed the line from being a cynical, whoring, and drinking abject failure to being a more self-serving egotist, is certainly a reasonable consideration.
If this proves nothing else, it demonstrates how specifically Spacey has tailored the role to his designs. He makes us see the remnants of the once bon vivant posturing second rate actor he was supposed to be. He certainly brings to life the charming alcoholic rogue as much as he indicates Tyrone’s alter egos, the superficially dashing knight-errant, the half-living shell of the deluded dreamer-survivor developed in O’Neill’s “Long Days’ Journey Into Night.” This is a Tyrone who gives the desperately impassioned Josie something to feel for a man who is totally haunted by regrets and possessed by guilt.
Colm Meaney is excellent as Phil Hogan, the boisterous tenant Connecticut pig farmer who is as devoted to his shy daughter Josie as he is dedicated to whatever mischievous machinations he can manage that will get her wed. Recreating the role he played in the Old Vic Theater production, Meaney is an energizing presence that serves as a counterweight to the more sullen speechifying of the play’s two other main characters.
No one is likely to complain about the dynamics created between the tormented Tyrone and the unloved and unlovable Josie. Best, another holdover from the Old Vic production, is unconventionally spirited as the pretending-to-be-wanton daughter of a pig farmer. Although scruffy and mud-adorned, she is hardly the “big ugly cow” Josie admits to being. Despite Best’s boisterously flamboyant account of Josie, she makes sure that it is Josie’s broken-hearted longings that are most visible and pitiable.
The early rowdy scenes between feisty Josie and her incorrigible boozing father were as lively as an Irish wake. And you have to give Spacey and Best credit for making the most of their static overwrought long-winded interludes in Act II. Billy Carter, who plays the snobby, rich landowner neighbor, gets to stand in proper awe and humility in the shadow of the principal performers. This, he does with a proper condescending arrogance. Eugene O’Hare makes a brief but commendable appearance as the young disgruntled son who runs away from the squalor of the Connecticut farm, and the pain of living there. However cloaked in pity and poetry, O’Neill’s play will always remain a significant and illuminating part of a great playwright’s soul. HH
“A Moon for the Misbegotten,” through Sunday, June 10, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W 47th Street. $82.50 to $102.50; 60 student rush seats offered at every performance only at the box office with valid ID. Premium seats $201.50 – $251.50 are available at all performances). 212-307-4100.