… very long day’s journey …

Long Day’s Journey Into Night has a particular importance and glamour as an autobiographical work by one of America’s greatest playwrights, with the Tyrone family in the play being drawn from Eugene O’Neill’s memories of his own family.  While often called a masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey is a wordy and repetitive play.  For the psychological infighting, love-hate interactions and deceptions to remain compelling for the play’s 3 ¾ hours running time, it needs great actors with psychological depth.  Jessica Lange is effective as the mother but the three male actors are disappointing.

As we see immediately at a tense breakfast in their Connecticut summer residence, father, mother and two brothers are all at odds with one another.  Adding to the usual frictions, on this August day, they’re particularly worried about the skittish mother and the sickly younger brother, Edmund, who represents Eugene O’Neill at 23 years.

James Tyrone, Sr. (Gabriel Byrne), at 65 still a famous actor and matinée idol, is extravagant in buying land and tight-fisted with his family.  He’s got the money, he presides.   Mary (Lange), convent educated, is now in her 50’s and one can believe that she was once the “prettiest girl in America.”  Jamie, Jr. (Michael Shannon) at 33-years old is an irresponsible failure in the acting career his father opened for him, a cynical, handsome bum.  Edmund (John Gallagher, Jr.) who represents Eugene O’Neill at 23 years, is a brainy, sensitive youth immersed in poetry.   He’s coughing from “a bad summer cold” and has an appointment with a doctor that afternoon to learn his diagnosis, but we know from the start what that diagnosis will be – obviously Edmund will turn out to have “consumption” – tuberculosis.

And they all have trouble staying sober.

The men are drawn to alcohol, Jamie, Jr. an out-and-out alcoholic, and James, Sr. also heavy with the bottle, though he says he’s “never missed a performance,” in pointed contrast to Jamie, Jr.   But Mary’s got another problem:  she’s spent much of her “restless” night in the spare room and they all know what that means though they try to evade it:  she’s relapsed into her briefly “cured” morphine addiction.

As Mary, Jessica Lange veers between flirtatious, girlish mannerisms that link her to her promising past, and the furious determination of a drug addict to hold on to her fix.  She interprets the character much in terms of that of Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire, a role she’s played, and won awards for, several times.  Like Blanche, Lange’s Mary is visibly on the brink of hysteria, struggling to maintain a semblance of normalcy and hide her mental disarray, grieved by a sense of failed promise and a lost, better past.

In a monolog describing the disappointments and despair that turned her into a “dope fiend,” in the lingo of the day, she ranges within single sentences from a high childish voice when recalling generosity in her father (in contrast to her husband), to a low, unmodulated voice remembering cheap, tawdry hotels on theatrical road trips, and her husband dropped at the door, drunk.   She charts Mary’s collapse in the course of the day, tottering (keeping the audience worrying) and then literally collapsing out of a chair.  It’s a studied performance — one’s always aware how she figured it out – but it’s quite beautiful nonetheless.

Gabriel Byrne does a workmanlike job but it’s impossible to see in him the charismatic actor James Tyrone and the play is the flatter for that.  John Gallagher, Jr. is simply dull as young Eugene O’Neill.  As Jamie, Michael Shannon does about the poorest job of acting a drunk I’ve ever seen.  He slurs his words, he staggers and he falls, but I never felt for a moment he had a drop of liquor in him.  These are all three actors with successful careers and impressive experience.  Unfortunately, they don’t provide the magnetism, nuance and psychological resonance this play, low in suspense and somewhat overburdened with words, needs from them.

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Long Day’s Journey Into Night Plays at the American Airlines Theater near Manhattan’s Times Square through June 26th, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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