Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the March 21, 2001

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

Review: `Moon for Misbegotten’

Early in the first act of "A Moon for the

Misbegotten,"

Josie looks her brother in the eyes and says, "You’re worse than

decent, you’re virtuous." But all is not as it appears, because

Josie’s dirty little secret is that she’s not nearly as bawdy as she

appears. Such are the subtleties of Eugene O’Neill’s "A Moon For

The Misbegotten," where no one is simply what they appear to be.

It is not surprising to discover that it was Eugene O’Neill’s final

play because it is packed with a lifetime’s worth of craftsmanship.

What is surprising is that it took years for it to be appreciated.

Written in 1943, it wasn’t until 1957 that it received its Broadway

premiere, and it wasn’t until after it was revived in 1973 that it

was widely declared a masterpiece.

Now as then, the play challenges actors and audiences. At Bristol

Riverside Theatre, director Susan B. Atkinson is presenting O’Neill’s

masterwork featuring Jo Twiss as Josie and Edward Keith Baker as James

Tyrone Jr. With some notable strengths and a few deficiencies, the

production runs through April 1.

Neatly constructed in four acts (with one intermission), O’Neill uses

the first two acts to carefully assemble his cast of characters,

combining

rich psychological peculiarities with a good shot of disarming comedy.

Then, after he has drawn his audience into a sense of emotional

investment

in these people, the playwright lowers the boom: the fourth act has

been called the most explosive in modern drama.

Set on a Connecticut farm in 1923, "A Moon For The

Misbegotten"

tells the story of a high-spirited, drunken old sot named Phil Hogan

(Tom McCarthy) who lives with his voluptuous daughter Josie (Jo

Twiss).

Together, for fear of losing their run-down farm, the two concoct

a plan to prevent its owner, James Tyrone Jr. (Edward Keith Baker),

from selling it to a rich grump, T. Stedman Harder (Kenneth Boys).

They fear that if he gets his hands on the place he’ll displace them

from their digs.

This is the plot, but what makes "A Moon For The Misbegotten"

such a wonderful play is its wealth of psychological complexities

that progressively reveal the masks that people wear in order to avoid

becoming vulnerable to one another. As in Shakespeare, no one is

wholly

as they appear. A braggart is ultimately revealed to be inept and

frightened. A loose woman is at bottom, a lonely and desperate

romantic.

Although "A Moon For the Misbegotten" (as well

as a number of other O’Neill productions of recent years) was steeped

in accolades when it was revived again on Broadway last year, there

are inherent dangers in presenting O’Neill to a modern audience. Heavy

with talk and laced with carefully nuanced exposition, it is a

challenge

to keep a 21st-century audience, with our notoriously short attention

span.

In this respect, director Susan B. Atkinson does a nice job keeping

the energy high and her characters on the move. Because of the play’s

intricacy, it is easy for a director to tip her hand and allow later

events to spill into earlier ones. Atkinson avoids this by carefully

giving each moment its full investigation, setting the moment as the

characters are living it in a kind of delicately sculpted slab of

stone and trusting the playwright to do his own foreshadowing. One

directorial bugaboo, however, is that she allows her actors to be

too loosey-goosey with their Irish accents, letting them slide in

and out of dialect.

Jo Twiss plays Josie, the quick-thinking virgin pretending to be a

slut, with a calculating efficiency. She ricochets from emotion to

emotion at the flicker of an eyelash, going from anger, to impatience,

to giggling happiness, to manipulative coyness — all in the space

of a minute of stage time. Her precise adherence to Josie’s emotional

nuances is a key ingredient to the play’s success because the audience

sees the world largely through Josie’s eyes. Bristol Riverside Theatre

is fortunate to have such an accomplished actress in such a vital

role.

Edward Keith Baker as James Tyrone Jr. has a certain slickness to

his stage presence that certainly suits a character who is desperately

trying to avoid real intimacy and emotional honesty. But Baker is

less successful when his character drops this slick exterior, because

the actor still wears it. The effect is unconvincing and a bit

unsettling;

something like seeing Robert Goulet sing a dirge.

Tom McCarthy as Phil Hogan, is less the potential brutish father with

a soft side and more like a giggly little elf stuck inside a whiskey

bottle. His character tends to display an emotional euphoria that

slurps over the side of even the play’s most comic moments, giving

them an edge that rings false. Simply stated, he seems to be having

a bit too much fun playing the part.

Nels Anderson’s set designs are once again excellent. He is a good

craftsman who seems to always deliver a aesthetically functional

product

that serves the performance well. Likewise Charles S. Reece’s lighting

design. He has emerged as one of the area’s best designers, with an

ability to achieve a subtlety that is truly excellent. His lighting

design performs, in essence, as another character: present, but

delightfully

unobtrusive.

"A Moon For The Misbegotten" is a big bite of O’Neill, and

certainly not to everyone’s tastes. But by surrendering to its

subtleties,

it is possible to discover a richness that is rarely found in modern

drama. It is astounding to see how much emotional truth can be packed

into one play.

— Jack Florek

A Moon for the Misbegotten, Bristol Riverside

Theater ,

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Performances continue

through April 1. $27 to $34.


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