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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.
Review: Moon for the Misbegotten
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
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
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
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