Eugene O’Neill is not for everyone. The great playwright’s most personal and revered masterpiece is Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s star-studded revival at the American Airlines Theatre is three and a half hours of bile, bitterness, and regret, spewed by a family of addicts. A circular firing squad shooting malignant invective, the Tyrone family — father James, mother Mary, ne’er-do-well older son Jamie, and sickly younger son Edmund — is hallowed ground for theater actors. And while Michael Shannon, who plays Jamie, recently called the challenge an invitation to an elite “secret society,” director Jonathan Kent’s new production feels weathered instead of raw, hollow instead of potent.
The story behind Long Day’s Journey is essential to its appreciation. O’Neill based the hard-drinking Irish-American Tyrone family on his own, a task so emotionally and psychologically draining that he insisted the play was never staged in his lifetime. Like James, his own father had been a successful but ultimately unfulfilled stage actor. Like Mary, his mother had never recovered from a family tragedy and drifted into the fog of morphine addiction. Like Jamie, his own older brother struggled with the bottle, and O’Neill himself suffered from tuberculosis, the same illness that plagues Edmund, the baby of the family with a heart of a poet. O’Neill’s family summered in Connecticut, and the play is set in the Tyrones’ slightly run-down seaside house over one day in 1912. Upon his death in 1953, O’Neill’s wife skirted his wishes to keep the play in the vault, and the 1956 Broadway production with Fredric March (James) and Jason Robards (Jamie) won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer. Robards eventually graduated to play the elder Tyrone, and the play’s “secret society” of actors came to include Katharine Hepburn (who played Mary in the 1962 film), Jack Lemmon, and Kevin Spacey. Vanessa Redgrave won a Tony for a 2003 revival that also starred Philip Seymour Hoffman.
So it’s a daunting literary and theatrical legacy — four actors probing the marrow of these characters’ souls, lashing out at the supposed loved ones whose most unforgivable crime is bearing witness to their personal shortcomings. “None of us can help the things life has done to us,” says Mary at one point. “They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
That line is not just the play’s theme, but a relentless drum beat, augmented by the disorienting effects of booze and drugs. Over and over, the characters say horrible things to each other, then apologize for saying horrible things, then poke a sharp stick in the wound one more time. There is no escape from the “morbid craziness,” except the thick fog that literally drifts in off the water and figuratively clouds their minds with each additional drink or dose.
In the Roundabout’s production, the living-room staging is ingeniously practical and elegant, with a majestic old stairwell and sheer curtains that flutter in the breeze while the purring of the waves waft over the proceedings. The room’s coziness is marred only by the slightly askew windows, which lack 90-degree angles and subtly underscore the off-kilter family dynamic.
At the center of the domestic storm is Jessica Lange, who played Mary during a 2000 run in London and has a masterful grasp of the character’s fragility — an intuitive strength after playing similar women in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. There is such confusion in Mary, such buried resentment, and Lange’s ability to portray a woman who is barely more than a ghost provides the story with enormous pathos. It’s nice to have an authentic Irishman playing James, but Gabriel Byrne’s patriarch feels subdued. He’s hardly a pushover, but he’s also much less imposing than previous portrayals. That calibration might be calculated, in deference to John Gallagher Jr. (a Tony winner for Spring Awakening) and Shannon, but except for when the latter comes alive in the final act, there is a surprising distance and disconnect — between the actors and their characters, between the actors and the audience. Is it just a natural effect of the deepening stupor of the day’s drinking? Or do the actors admire O’Neill’s words and feel honored to be saying them, but don’t necessarily believe in them? O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night around 1941, but this might be the first major Broadway production that feels old. C+