3 August 2003: O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Plymouth Theatre, New York. Directed by Robert Falls. James Tyrone: Brian Dennehy; Mary: Vanessa Redgrave; Jamie: Philip Seymour Hoffman; Edmund: Robert Sean Leonard; Cathleen: Fianna Toibin

Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, mounted a production of this play in March 2002. Presumably Falls has remounted that production with the present cast, opening in May 2003 for a limited run here in New York (I believe it closes at the end of the month). One pays a premium price for a ticket; a seat in the third row of the mezzanine, on the extreme right, partially blocked by the proscenium and a multi-unit light standard, cost me $100, plus $1.25 “facility fee,” a handling charge of $2.50, and a service charge of $6.00, amounting to $109.75, a virtual 10% premium on the cost of the ticket. It feels like scalping.

But it is a wonderful production all the same, and it bears Robert Falls’s trademark qualities (when it comes to treatment of modern classics, e.g. Death of a Salesman): wholesale departure from any hint of veneration; re-conception of character relationships; notably physical acting; and top-of-voice shouting — the last quality one that fails to endear. Maybe it’s the sad lack of real vocal training in American theatrical preparation, but there is a sense — almost an ethos — that true authenticity in highly emotive situations is achieved only by shouting at the top of your voice. Brian Dennehy does this a lot; so does Philip Hoffman as Jamie; Robert Sean Leonard indulges in it too, but not to so great an extent. The contrast between these over-the-top vocal pyrotechnics and Vanessa Redgrave’s brilliantly managed, clear, resonant, and compelling voice could hardly be more apparent. Indeed, she begins the fateful day in the life of the Tyrone family using a voice sweet and somewhat high-pitched; as the day moves on and she falls more and more under the pall of her character’s addiction to morphine, the voice descends progressively into a lower, deeper range.

Certainly it is true that Falls’s emphasis on physical things finds a perfect match in Redgrave’s own particularly physical approach to this — or any — part. (I remember, some years ago, seeing her play Mrs Alving in London — at Wyndham’s, I think — and being struck by a moment in which she falls on her knees and embraces the legs of the seated Pastor Manders, pouring out her heart and memories of what once seemed a love relationship so promising and so badly needed.) Here, on her first entrance, arm in arm with her husband, she is very close to him, caressing his hair, kissing him erotically and long, unencum­bered before her two grown sons. The kissing repeats itself through earlier mom­ents of the play, but then we begin to miss it; and the more “dope” she takes and the more it makes her withdraw increasingly into herself and her past, the more distance she places between herself and her long-suffering, still hopeful but quickly despairing, yet still loving, husband.

The play performs, in this production, in almost exactly 4 hours, with two intermissions. In order to accommodate a play written in four acts to what is effectively three, Falls adjusts the intervals as follows: Act I becomes Act I scene 1; Act II scene 1 becomes Act I scene 2 (Intermission); Act II scene 2 becomes Act II scene 1; Act III becomes Act II scene 2 (Intermission); and Act IV becomes Act III. One understands the necessity of eliminating one of O’Neill’s original three intermissions, but the result is that the two sequences of Act II, separated in fictional time by only half an hour, are pried apart and relegated, respectively, to earlier and later parts of the day. My recollections of the original American production, which memory (which sometimes errs) tells me I saw in 1956, are that, after a while, I felt I had been living with this family for a long while, and was going to go on doing so for a long while, and that was all right. Somehow, I think the fact of three intermissions slows down the overall pace of the play, emphasizing the sheer length of the performance — and the inevitability of the fictional experience. Eliminating an intermission seems to have the effect of hurrying things up and so disturbing, if only to a relatively small extent, the rhythms and the pace that are so crucial to the effect of this play on an audience.

As in the case of his production of Salesman some two years ago (perhaps more), Falls can be perceived to be reacting to the “Museum-piece” quality of classic American plays. He brings an instinctive rough immediacy to the task of a fresh re-mounting. No one could have mistaken his production of Salesman for a replication of the original; he completely jettisoned the proscenium-based setting of Lee Simonson, with its looming cityscape behind a skeletonized house wonderfully suited to the fluid movement of Willy’s mind, chaotically fluctuating between present and past, replacing that with large-scale wagons carrying the kitchen, Linda and Willy’s bedroom, the boys’ bedroom, and other units wheeled forward and back as needed within a completely neutral dark space representing nowhere — a completely deracinated, theatricalized environment (the term does not really suit). I expected Falls to do something comparable with Long Day’s Journey, but was mistaken. Evidently he believes the play must remain moored in the New London summer house that O’Neill designates as the setting. We get a kind of indoor-outdoor effect, all the same, as if the play is taking place on a large enclosed porch; the backing of the set is dark brown shingle, and the furniture is wicker and cushions — all being Santo Loquasto’s realization of what are evidently Falls’s intentions. The result is a realistic, environmentally convincing surround that looks both comfortable and foreboding. An entry-way up left, open and spacious, offers access to the upstairs by way of a staircase, only six or eight steps of which are visible, cut off by the shingle backing. A step or two down leads into the main acting area. To its left is a wicker chaise (which I could hardly see from my perch in Mezzanine C28). A largish round table at slightly right of center is surrounded by four chairs, including a rocker. (In the opening moments of the play, just after breakfast, all four of the Tyrones enter from the dining room up right and come down and seat themselves very close together around the upstage half of the table, as if to make a living picture of togetherness.) At right is a small writing desk with a single lamp — not used very much, but the place, in the last act, where Edmund will sit and read from a journal he takes from the desk drawer as he recounts that epiphanic event of lying out on the bowsprit undergoing a mystical experience that, for a brief moment, puts him in touch with the secret of the universe. Why did Falls — it’s his idea, not O’Neill’s — invent a journal for Edmund to read from, instead of just letting him speak the lines as recollection? I think this was part of Falls’s attempt to avoid any hint of the formal, rhetorical set piece that could remind us of O’Neill’s attempts at a domesticated version of grand theatre in this play. There are in fact various set pieces here — Tyrone’s affecting story, also in the last act, of his father’s abandonment of his family and the resultant hardship — and O’Neill, despite his loathing of the histrionics of James O’Neill’s play The Count of Monte Cristo and the theatre that spawned it, has put a certain number of speeches of this kind into the play, smuggling them, as it were, into the ostensible low-key colloquial realism that purports to be the overall style and ethos of the work. I feel sure Falls noticed the presence of this rhetoric and decided to play it down wherever possible. But his giving Edmund a journal from which to read struck me as distracting. It substitutes a mere physical object, words on a page, for the wonderful, enthusiastic spontaneity of Edmund’s sudden recollection of a moment when he felt utterly free.

Perhaps I’m being a bit severe. On balance, Falls directed his actors very well and achieved a beautifully well-sustained intensity, perfectly well paced. This production holds its audience masterfully, even relentlessly, in its grip. There are lines in the play that this audience, brought up on TV sit-coms, reacts to with genuine quick laughter. Clearly it is all right to laugh in some places, even in the case of a masterpiece of American tragedy. There is nothing solemn about these proceedings. They also are held in utter silence for long stretches, and Falls is not afraid to build in long pauses.

Perhaps the clearest instance in which Falls is his own man emerges at the end of the play. On the one hand, he faithfully follows O’Neill’s staging at the moment when Tyrone takes Mary’s wedding dress from her and slowly retreats to the table, where he sits down again and holds it in his arms “with an unconscious clumsy protective gentleness” (Yale edition, page 172). And he follows O’Neill a few minutes later in having her move left to the sofa (in this production the chaise longue), where she sits through to the end of the act. — Well, I am wrong about what I was going to say. I somehow remember a production in which Mary comes down a long flight of stairs, trailing her wedding dress behind her. But, on inspecting the last scene as O’Neill wrote it, I find that he does not call for her to make an entrance down the staircase but, instead, through the door of the front parlor (in this production, at the top of the platform up right center which also leads off right to the dining room), where she has suddenly started playing the piano. I was going to say that Falls asserts his individuality by having her do this instead of making a grand entrance down the staircase. Ah, well. Falls’s clear-eyed reinvigoration of O’Neill’s classic is evident throughout, anyway. Finally, it is memorable most of all from Vanessa Redgrave’s performance, frenetic and dreamy, vivacious and depressed, cynical and resigned to her fate. And aggressive. I have never seen this character played for all the retaliatory quality that, I now discover because Redgrave led me to discover it, lies in the complex interstices of Mary Tyrone. Part of what leads her back into the mire of addiction, as Redgrave plays it, is the same vindictive desire to get back at the people who have wronged and betrayed her that in part motiv­ates the aggressiveness of the men in this play.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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