Reviewed by David Spencer
Oh, such a mix of feelings!
On the one hand, this new production of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten is, I believe, more courageous and more "right" than any previously on Broadway—including, if one is to believe the reviews, the 1957 debut with Wendy Hiller, Franchot Tone and Cyril Cusack—staged after ONeill's death and a decade after the first stab at a production closed out of town—which landed at the Bijou Theatre when I was but three; I managed to be grown up enough for the others. That first one is significant, though, because the play itself was not well appreciated. ONeill's plays, even at their best (and barring people with scholarly interest, we are only familiar with those select titles, because they are the only ones that remain realistically produceable; time has not been kind to the many others) are as overwritten, melodramatic, repetitive and even, in among all the passages that might be cited as stage poetry, clumsily worded. You don't envy the actor who has to tell a woman feigning sexual crudeness, "Aw, nix on the raw stuff, Josie."
It was only with the 1973 reinvestigation directed by Jose Quintero that the play finally claimed its dignity and its due. Partly this is because stars Jason Robards (for whom O'Neill was a passion and a specialty) and Colleen Dewhurst had the charisma and the octane to expose the fire in the play. So much so that you ignored them both being a little too old for it—ignored too that Ed Flanders was too young to be Colleen Dewhurst's father. This was the magic of the theatre, the greats in iconic roles to which they were suited by birthright, you went for the ride.
By the same token, the Time Magazine critic who wrote this in 1957 was not wrong about the traps of the play:
"Taking place about ten years after Long Day's Journey into Night, A Moon reintroduces the hard-drinking older O'Neill brother, James Tyrone Jr. Jim Tyrone is by now a wholly dissipated, used-up drunk, his last reserves gone with the death of his mother. The sweet, healthy, hulking daughter of an Irish tenant farmer, a virgin who pretends to be a wanton, has long been wildly in love with Jim. The two come together alone one night, but beyond a quickly aborted impulse of drunken lust in Jim, nothing happens. Partly from knowing he must spoil her life by sharing it, and even more from having nothing left inside to share, Jim goes away for good.
"In some raffish first-act comedy, and very fitfully thereafter, when [the actors] give urgency to O'Neill's clouded scenes, or give a face to his sense of lostness, A Moon stirs to life. But mostly it lies dead; and something a little too decent in everyone's basic motives makes A Moon soft as well as enfeebled. There is no tumble and toss of sick, bitter, angry, thwarted, even petrified emotions. Everywhere there is a sense of O'Neill's honest compassion, but nowhere is there anything incandescently imagined or inextinguishably remembered. Words fumble through fog, or have a dated slanginess which, lacking all poetry, sinks almost to parody: 'You're the goods, Kid...I know what you want, Bright Eyes. Come on, Baby Doll, let's hit the hay.'"
In order to get past this, the play requires the magic of the theatre anew. Revivals since the '73 production (which has been immortalized on video, for the curious) have floundered, despite having perfectly fine actors, for lack of the spark between the characters to each other and between performers and play. Because when you get past it, the ultimate moral decency of the play isn't a dramatic weakness, but rather the tightrope walk that makes the drama compelling. Josie yearns for Jim to make love to her; Jim knows that if he does, he won't be able to let go until he poisons her spirit—as he sees it, there isn't much decency left in him, and he clings to what little he has like a drowning man to driftwood. The compromise is that he winds up in her more chaste embrace, sobbing himself to a rare, peaceful sleep, beneath the stars, as she forgives him all the sins, real and imagined, that haunt him.
In the new production, imported from London's Old Vic, spearheaded by, and starring the Old Vic's new artistic director—the decidedly un-British Kevin Spacey—A Moon for the Misbegotten has the juice. Under the direction of Howard Davies (who also directed Spacey as Hickey in the 1999 revival of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh) this Moon features Jim (Spacey) at the right age for premature dissolution; Josie (Eve Best) at the right age to still be a vibrant possibility rather than an old maid; and between them a genuine sexual tension. Never before has the playful banter between these two characters been so charged with the subtext of exploration and dare, each wondering just how far the other may actually push the envelope. And they are also simply perfect aesthetically. Ms. Best, who seems to be, from still photos, genuinely lovely, nonetheless puts forth without obvious illusion, the image of dowdy plainness—but camouflaging luminous beauty within. And who better than Kevin Spacey to deliver a fast talking Broadway dandy—camouflaging a spititual wreck tired of the high life.
And when it all explodes into emotional chaos, again, never before have Jim and Josie been quite this exposed—Ms. Best's aching need vulnerable as a heart ripped from a torso; and as for Mr. Spacey's deterioration when drink takes over and his decency wages a roaring war with his self-loathing—
—ah, well, there's where the mix of feelings—feelings as an audience member, I mean—comes in. It isn't merely that Mr. Spacey is unafraid to take Jim to the emotional wall without sentiment, apology or compromise...he gives the impression of liking it far too much. All right, yes, Jim may look down upon his ability to charm using his theatrical wiles; but as a gesture of dismissal before describing how easily he conned someone, would he really toss off that fey little flounce? It gets its desired laugh, but at what cost to verisimilitude? Personally, I stopped thinking about Jim Tyrone and started thinking about whether Kevin Spacey's editorial comment of gesture was appropriate. And I suppose you can't argue with an interpretation that claims that in extremis Jim Tyrone will "devolve" into a needy child, haunted as he is by the death of his mother; it does indeed make psychological sense...yet the simpering whininess employed by Mr. Spacey doesn't quite "feel" like Jim Tyrone's brand of bawling supplication. Is he really reduced to a simpering boy? Or is he a broken soul trying to claw his way back to what he perceives as manhood? There is a fine line between realism and indulgence, and Mr. Spacey occasionally blurs it. (Bob Crowley's set design strangely amplifies the dichotomy; the shanty home into which Josie and her father occasionally retreat is SO conspicuously slanted that it's conspicuously theatrical too. It's just not a "real" house—even as shacks go.)
For good or ill, though, it is Spacey's drive to do the play in the first place (one assumes) that got us to the point where it has this vital and vigorous new lease on life, so how much should one carp? Not enough to dissuade you from attending, to be sure.
All this attention lavished on Best and Spacey ought not obliterate the third lead player of the triumvirate, Colm Meany, whose turn as Josie's father Phil is, by contrast to Mr. Spacey, perfectly blended and unerringly true, as he balances the old blarney of a veteran trickster with the hidden compassion of a loving parent. He alone would be worth—
—I was about to say "the price of admission" but one does have to balk at the price of admission. There aren't just orchestra seats anymore, those going for $150. There are premium seats. Priced at a gulp-inducing $250.
For a one-set, five character revival?
This is Spacey's doing too. Directly or indirectly. It's tied into his reportedly record-breaking salary and his position as Old Vic artistic director. As the power behind the production, he’d have to’ve approved it.
And if he and his consortium of Broadway co-producers get away with it, the theatrical marketplace will lose all sense of proportion. It will ripple out to affect not only the business end, but how new works are developed and what new works get developed. No matter which good productions charge that larcenous fare, nothing good will come of it.
Oh, such a mix of feelings!