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Virtuosic ‘Long Day’s Journey’ Meets the Challenge but Sacrifices Strangeness


“The past is the present, isn’t it?”
exclaims Mary Tyrone halfway through Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “It’s the future, too.”

It’s true: not just for the characters, but for us, too. Eugene O’Neill’s 1941 masterwork has long been treated as a point of origin for the development of a recognizable American drama: the template for generations of nuclear families in strife, their buried secrets erupting to the surface. But in our eagerness to enlist O’Neill as both forefather and contemporary, we can miss the strange theatrical history on which he himself was drawing. Such rich convergence of dramatic past and future is missing from the accomplished yet slightly vacant production now playing on Broadway, directed by Jonathan Kent.

Even if you’ve never met the Tyrones, you’ve met the Tyrones. James (Gabriel
Byrne) is a star actor transformed, by success, into a penny-pinching hack; Mary (Jessica Lange), his wife, has been ruined by grief and addiction. Then there are their sons: James Jr. (Michael Shannon) — resentful, alcoholic, directionless — and Edmund (John Gallagher Jr.), doomed by tuberculosis. Over the course of one very long day, the family confronts its demons: Has Mary truly emerged from her morphine addiction, or are its claws in her yet? Is Edmund’s consumption a death sentence, or will James pony up for a cure? And what transgressions in the Tyrones’ collective past forecast inevitable doom in their future?

O’Neill orchestrates intergenerational heartbreak in slow, extravagant movements: Characters launch into introspective meditations or lavishly detailed recollections. They reproach one another, and themselves, in lengthy, poetic terms, always circling back for more. The Roundabout’s virtuosic cast more than meets these demands: Shannon’s James Jr. is a study in rage, Byrne’s James a study in obsessive regret. Rising to the challenge of the mammoth text (the
production runs nearly four hours) is
an accomplishment worth celebrating.

But it’s hard not to long for a little bit more from this production. Lange’s Mary — declamatory, endlessly posing — hints at the melodramatic impulses barely submerged in O’Neill’s realism. Long Day’s Journey is famously autobiographical, with James Tyrone modeled on O’Neill’s own father, who spent an acting career playing the swashbuckling Count of Monte Cristo, sacrificing artistic growth for financial success. Some of the best scenes stage such clashes of aesthetic sensibilities and values: when the characters delightfully, and poignantly, wallow in
recitations of Shakespeare or bicker over Nietzsche. This is when the Tyrones are having the most fun, and when we do, too — but it’s also representative of artistic tensions as deeply interesting as the family’s myriad breakdowns.

But although O’Neill’s play leaves room for an expansive approach to theatrical form, this production offers little directorial perspective. The performance doesn’t feel theatrically durational — just long. Set designer Tom Pye’s spacious seaside living room is topped by a slanted ceiling (as if something terrible were pressing down from above), but the real fog-bound O’Neill cottage, the one this play is modeled on, is far weirder: cramped and disproportionate in unnerving ways. O’Neill has more to tell us about our theatrical past — and more to inspire in our future — if we give him the leeway to do it.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Directed by Jonathan Kent
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street