The Clarifying Fog

Integrity's Back on Broadway—Has Anyone Noticed?

In this regard, Broadway's sorry state has gloomy similarities to the sorry state of American life in general. People who are dishonest with themselves about their shortcomings are just as dishonest about the shortcomings whom they elect to political office. Even Broadway in the age of the Roundabout isn't as badly off as our civil liberties in the age of Ashcroft, or our corporate ethics in the age of Enron. O'Neill of course knew all about the way these things knit together: The detritus of political and fiscal hucksters washes up in The Iceman Cometh, and in Long Day's Journey you can learn how money poisons art from James Tyrone's last-act confession, the one starting with "That God-damned play." (Shouldn't every Broadway producer be made to memorize this speech and audition with it before joining the League?) Dennehy, whose overall performance is solid but monochrome, must have a sharp personal sense of this speech; it is one of the moments he rises to most strongly.

Such moments are, to my quibbling taste, rarer than they should be this time around. Act I (I am using O'Neill's act and scene divisions, annoyingly mislabeled in the Playbill) is the best, with all four actors etching their presences in firmly, yet all holding back to let the tension build. Then, slowly, Robert Falls's production begins to unravel: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jamie starts to rise in pitch and floridness before he's had a drink. The rhythms of Vanessa Redgrave's Mary get skitteringly disconnected from the text, till by the end of Act II ("Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?"), she's literally climbing the walls, stretching her long arms up the paneling of Santo Loquasto's set. This is arresting—Redgrave's tall, charismatic figure makes any gesture arresting—but, like much of what she does, far from relevant. (O'Neill's stage direction is, "She gives a little despairing laugh.") Dennehy and Robert Sean Leonard hew to the play's line, but Dennehy's variety is sparse, and Leonard's quiet, steadily building Edmund, though the only one of the quartet to sustain his role fully to the end, is often overshadowed by the more flamboyant, less well-integrated work around him.

But, as my pal Bill Shakespeare used to tell me, the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if your imagination amend them. (Burbage's business partner wrote that; imagine trying to write its equivalent for one of today's overtouted Pacinos or Simon Russell Beales.) "The play's the thing," Bill summed up, and so it is, if an author can write one strong enough to catch our consciences in it. Always assuming, of course, that when we get out of our present downward spiral, we still have consciences left.

Brian Dennehy in Long Day's Journey Into Night: family on the rocks
photo: Joan Marcus
Brian Dennehy in Long Day's Journey Into Night: family on the rocks

Details

Long Day's Journey Into Night
By Eugene O'Neill
Plymouth Theatre
236 West 45th Street
212-239-6200

The Look of Love
Lyrics by Hal David, music by Burt Bacharach
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street
212-307-4100


One of the few heartening signs, in this respect, is the virtually universal loathing produced in the press by the Roundabout's current display of its total lack of artistic conscience, The Look of Love. Love, look away. Burt Bacharach and Hal David will never be my favorite songwriters, but in their defense I have to say that their songs, carefully wrought within their circumscribed style, deserve better than to be dumped onstage, uninvestigated and juicelessly conveyed, at the mercy of some inexplicable "concept" by four people who, collectively, don't appear to have as much talent as you can find in two bars of Bacharach chord progressions. The evening starts with a show curtain on which is painted, stage left, a disembodied eye. The look of love may be in your eye and mine, but you won't find it in this unintentional evocation of Un Chien Andalou, or in anything that goes on once it rises. Why is the Roundabout, a Broadway producing firm that rarely raises its sights above commercial exploitation, granted nonprofit status to produce this kind of Vegas-lounge dreck? Shouldn't its funders compel it to keep its money-grubbing hands at least minimally clean?

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