Stepping Lightly

I wish I could speak as well of A Moon for the Misbegotten, but I suspect I'll have to wait and see it again before that's possible. Cherry Jones, the press rep advises, has been performing despite flu, and I can't tell how much of her performance that explains. Certainly this is a tenderer, more soft-spoken version of Josie Hogan than we're used to, or than O'Neill calls for—but is that interpretation or illness, or both? O'Neill's play, for all its boxy bulk, is a set of nested illusions, at the heart of which is a fervently lapsed Catholic's malicious parody of the Church's central dogma: In this play's miracle, "a virgin bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin." Josie, a farmer's daughter who poses as brutal and promiscuous, is the virgin, tender-hearted and maternal. The dead child is a living adult male—her landlord, James Tyrone Jr., O'Neill's cruel yet forgiving portrait of his older brother. Josie's father, a rowdy sadist frightened only by her, is another sheepish sentimentalist in wolf's clothing; he schemes to pair Jamie and Josie because he fears the rich man next door, who wants to get rid of the Hogans by buying the farm. But the drunken night that landlord and farmer's daughter spend together is one of confession and removal of masks, not sex. Sick with guilt at having betrayed his mother, by picking up a whore on the train that brought her corpse east for burial, Jamie is no suitor. Part shrink—the play contains several allusions to the talking cure—and part maternal surrogate, Josie works an act of absolution on this self-crucified creature, forming a topsy-turvy Pietà, cleansing him of guilt and freeing herself from her father's schemes and her own poses.

The play's theatrical machinery may clank, but the substance passing through it is both big and variegated. The hard part, nowadays, is not getting put off by the machinery. Dan Sullivan, a director strongly committed to old-style naturalism, builds the machine too heavily for my taste: Eugene Lee's elaborate naturalistic set, almost aggressively un-grand, shoves the dowdy farmhouse up to the curtain line, backing it with rocks and foliage till there's no glimpse of the Connecticut sky, though moon and sunrise are important reference points. In similar vein, Sullivan allows Roy Dotrice free, and lengthy, rein to take stage, treating the role of Hogan in typical Roy Dotrice fashion, as an Irish-dialect music-hall act. It's a first-rate act of its kind, and O'Neill, who loved vaudeville comedy, would have been the first to applaud, but its jolting lack of relation to the somber drama building between the lines paradoxically makes the evening lumpier, not lighter. When Gabriel Byrne's Jamie comes on, we get a different phase of showbiz, a dashing, actorish leading man, exquisite of profile, who can evoke many of Jamie's emotions—he caught my heart three or four times—but doesn't create Jamie, neither the dissipated exterior nor the deadness at the core, for more than a few minutes.

Making it look easy: W.H. Macy in American Buffalo
photo: Mark Douet
Making it look easy: W.H. Macy in American Buffalo


American Buffalo
By David Mamet
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street

A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill
Walter Kerr Theatre
Broadway and 48th Street

And then there's Jones. I want this performance to contain everything—God knows, the playwright demands everything an actress can give—and maybe at some point it will. Right now, leaving aside all questions of illness, what we see is the sweet and girlish side of the role, as if Jones had been painstakingly instructed to make clear, for the sake of less-than-bright tourist audiences, that Josie is not a trampy wild girl, dangerous with a tire iron, but a golden-hearted idealist. The forgiving smile comes early, the bold and bawdy gestures are gentled down or made less than convincing; in the two intense scenes with Jamie, the soft voice often catches Byrne's pitch and comes in under his volume. These qualities, too, belong to the role, and when Josie can pour them out openly, Jones is stunning. (Her peak moment, obviously, is Josie's confession of her virginity to Jamie.) For the rest, we'll have to wait and see. This isn't New York's first Moon, but there'll be time to compare Jones to other Josies when she's more herself.

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