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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: Moon for the Misbegotten

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

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 lengthy often

humorous diatribes, particularly in "Moon," fascinating throughout

the autobiographical soul-searching that connect 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. It has arrived

at the Walter Kerr Theater, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan,

who also staged it for Chicago’s Goodman Theater, earlier this season.

If the production’s shortcomings, which may also be the play’s, tend

to reduce its potential for impact and poignancy, the performance

of Roy Dotrice stands out as one of the most delightful and dazzling

of the season. The distinguished actor, whom we see too infrequently

on Broadway, but who has appeared in 10 Broadway shows, earned great

acclaim for his one-man shows — "Brief Lives" (1968 and

1974) and "Mister Lincoln" (1980). As Phil Hogan, the boisterous

tenant 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, Dotrice produces a sustained energizing presence

that mercifully offers a relief from the often mystifying speech-ifying

of the play’s two other main characters.

When it comes to mystifying, there is no better word to describe the

perilously remote and melancholy performance by Gabriel Byrne, as

the tormented alcoholic James Tyrone Jr. Byrne, an Irish actor with

a pedigree that extends from Dublin’s Abbey Theater to numerous and

impressive film roles in "Miller’s Crossing," "Little

Women," and "The Usual Suspects," among others, seems

to have crossed the line from being a cynical, whoring, and drinking

abject failure to being only the ghost of an emotionally dead man.

What appears missing the most are the remnants of the once bon vivant

second rate actor he was supposed to be. Neurotic, but certainly never

the charming alcoholic rogue, Byrne’s sullen countenance somehow muddies

Tyrone’s alter egos, the superficially dashing knight-errant and the

half living shell of the deluded dreamer-survivor developed in O’Neill’s

"Long Days’ Journey Into Night," and ultimately gives us too

little to feel. He certainly gives desperately impassioned Josie less

to feel for a man who is so totally haunted by regrets and possessed

by guilt.

I will admit to being unfairly prejudiced by the memory of Jason Robards’

mesmerizing interpretation in the classic 1973 production. That landmark

production, which also starred Colleen Dewhurst and was directed by

Jose Quintero, left an indelible impression of O’Neill’s transcendent

portrait of a man on the brink of death from drinking. A 1984 production,

under the direction of David Leveaux, and starring Kate Nelligan and

Ian Bannen, also suffered in the shadow of the milestone 1973 revival.

Any once-ideal cast can become a burden on the revival of a great

play that needs every cog to turn the wheel full circle.

A great loss to the play is the lack of fireworks between the tormented

Tyrone and the unloved and unlovable Josie. Cherry Jones, whose award-winning

performances in "The Heiress," "Pride’s Crossing,"

among a constantly growing list of memorable portrayals, appears ill

at ease, if not ill suited, as the pretending-to-be-wanton daughter

of a pig farmer. Notwithstanding Jones’ inappropriately chic Madison

Avenue haircut, white legs, and the lack of mud that might appropriately

adorn the face of the "big ugly cow," Josie admits to being,

Jones nevertheless fitfully affects a boisterously flamboyant account

of Josie.

The early rowdy scenes between feisty Josie and impish Phil Hogan,

her incorrigible, boozing father (Dotrice) were as lively as an Irish

wake. Granted that any actress would have her work cut out balancing

Josie’s crusty facade with her passionate longings. Neither are as

marked a presence as Josie’s possible incestuous relationship with

her father, something the play does not deal with. Much less enthralling

were Jones’ static long-winded interludes with Byrne in Act II. It

isn’t altogether the fault of Jones and Byrne that these take their

toll on an otherwise attentive audience. It’s never easy to remain

enthralled as the play begins to press its overwrought message toward

the three-hour mark.

But, if the most extraordinary portrayal comes from Dotrice, whose

playful leprechaun excesses express more precisely the Irish temperament

of the play, Tuck Milligan, who plays the snobby, rich landowner neighbor,

gets to stand in proper awe and humility in the shadow of Dotrice’s

performance. This, he does with a proper condescending arrogance.

Paul Hewitt 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. Eugene Lee’s set design contrasts

the Hogans’ broken down firetrap of a shanty shack against the sturdy

mountain of boulders it abuts. Director Sullivan cannot be faulted

for trying to evoke all that is run-down, moon-mad and misbegotten

about this tantalizing and tormented masterwork. However cloaked in

pity and poetry, O’Neill’s play will always remain an illumination

of a great playwright’s soul. HH

— Simon Saltzman

A Moon for the Misbegotten, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West

48th Street. $60-$70. 212-239-6200.

ENDLINE-NEXT = — Simon Saltzman

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