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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 25, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `A Moon for the Misbegotten’

The skeleton frame of the Hogan’s squalid Connecticut farmhouse looms behind the simply furnished interior. Although dilapidated platforms, ramps, and stairs add a dimension of reality to the front yard of designer Eugene Lee’s evocative setting, it is the impassioned human conflicts that take place within it that quickly grab our attention and hold it for almost three hours.

That this staging by director Gary Griffin is also filled with more aggressively boisterous comedy helps activate a layer in the play too often undervalued. Griffin, who directed the lauded mini-version of "My Fair Lady" at McCarter in 2004, and directed the current musical production of "The Color Purple" on Broadway, has found a nice balance between this great play’s abject poignancy and its inherently wicked playfulness. If the funnier parts appear to be more emphatically emphasized, it is due, in part, to Griffin’s spirited fresh vision.

Even in his final play offered for production, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," Eugene O’Neill relentlessly pursued the same ghosts that had haunted him throughout his life. A true poet of earthbound lyricism, O’Neill makes his flair for lengthy tirades both funny and fascinating through the autobiographical soul-searching that connects O’Neill’s own older brother with this play’s central character.

Set in 1923 on the Hogans’ pig farm leased from the Tyrone family, the play concentrates on the scheme that Phil Hogan hatches for his daughter Josie to marry the perpetually inebriated, emotionally and psychologically crippled land-owner James Tyrone Jr. James and Josie’s relationship, however, is irreparably hampered by his guilt and a lifetime of failures and her rooted investment in caring for her father.

Most persuasively, Griffin has cast the two leads younger than has been the norm, but closer to what O’Neill describes. Considering the actors that have to follow in the pathway that Jason Robards paved in Jose Quintero’s landmark 1973 production, up to and including the one given by Gabriel Byrne in a 2000 production, it is a bit of a start at first to see this role in a new light, particularly entrusted to an actor who effectively employs a restrained dramatic delivery to complement a noticeably effete countenance. It’s a daring undertaking for Andrew McCarthy to tackle the role of the physically eroding actor James Tyrone Jr.

McCarthy, however, comes very close to revealing a good many of the darker shadows of this superficially dashing knight-errant and the half-living shell of the deluded dreamer-survivor developed in O’Neill’s companion piece, "Long Day’s Journey into Night." Neurotic to be sure, but never completely willing to relinquish the alcoholic’s roguish charm, McCarthy looks dapper with a yellow boutonniere in his brown pin stripe suit and spats. A mustache helps to add maturity to his still youthful face. Some may feel the lack of emotional sparks between the tormented Tyrone and the unloved and un-loveable Josie Hogan (Kathleen McNenny), but this explains the tarnished silver cord that still bonds James to his mother and Josie to her father.

As the pretending-to-be-wanton daughter of a pig farmer, the "scandal of the neighborhood," McNenny is, despite her bruised knees and dirt-smudged face, a very sexy, if frumpy, wench indeed. While far from fitting her self-description as an "ugly big lump of a woman," she carries around her (slightly padded) frame with a feisty assurance that recalls a young Maureen O’Hara. A good many laughs derive from the pleasure that McNenny gets deploying her fists and even a big stick.

In one scene her punch sends McCarthy tumbling precariously off a deck. McNenny is, in fact, dynamite, as she ably projects both a crusty facade and the passionate longing that propels Josie. It certainly isn’t the fault of McNenny or McCarthy that the long-winded interludes in Act II take their toll. Nevertheless, at the performance I caught, an otherwise attentive audience stayed enthralled even as the play begins to reprocess many of the same sentiments.

An exhilarating presence in the production, particularly in expressing the Irish temperament of the play, is Jack Willis, whose almost whimsical demeanor as the blustery boozing Phil Hogan punctuates the drama without puncturing it. Jeremiah Wiggins is a hoot as T. Stedman Harder, the arrogant, condescending and rich land-owner neighbor who wants to buy the Hogan farm. Posturing in his riding britches and crop, he makes the most of his short comedic scene as he gets the brunt of Josie and Phil vigorously expressed ire.

Peter Scanavino gets some effective dramatic mileage as Mike Hogan, the young, disgruntled son who runs away from the farm and the pain of living there. The McCarter production team, including costumer Jess Goldstein and lighting designer Jane Cox, has craftily stirred up all that is rundown, moon-mad, and begotten about this tantalizingly tormented masterwork.

– Simon Saltzman

A Moon for the Misbegotten, through Sunday, February 19. Berlind Theater at McCarter, 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org


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