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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 1
Spring, 1984


(IN THIS ISSUE)

REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE

3. A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, directed by David Leveaux. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA, December 20, 1983 - January 29, 1984, prior to April 9 transfer to the Cort Theatre, New York City.

The production of A Moon for the Misbegotten now gracing the Cort Theatre stage on Broadway underwent a long journey to get there. It began in June 1983 at the Riverside Studios in London; transferred to the Mermaid Theatre for an extended run through November, where it was reviewed for the Newsletter by Gerald Berkowitz (Winter 1983 issue, p. 25); and then jumped the Atlantic (losing all but one of its original cast in the process) for performances at the American Rep last December and January (where this reviewer saw it), before settling in for what looks like a long and successful run in New York, where it earned Tony Award nominations for its director (David Leveaux), sole actress (Kate Nelligan) and lighting designer (Marc B. Weiss, who joined the production staff after the A.R.T. run), and a fourth as the season's best reproduction of a play or musical. Messrs. Leveaux and Ian Bannen (Jim Tyrone) certainly deserve commendation for sticking with the production from Thames to Charles to Hudson--the latter, I believe, more commendation than he has received at the hands of most critics; the former, a trifle less. But the Tony nominations were appropriate, the performance is a rewarding one, and any lover of the play who missed the legendary, unbeatable Quintero production of 1973, with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, should try to see it.

Moon may be a "flawed masterpiece,"1 but it is a marvelously theatrical play, deceptive in its surface simplicity, smoothly deepening from superficial comedy to soul-searing double tragedy, and a resonant coda to O'Neill's dramatic career--a career sufficiently lengthy and experimental for the playwright to be able, by 1943, to express precisely what he wanted: four acts (not two) of straight realism in which a moribund derelict achieves a night of solace and forgiveness at the ample breast of a large maternal woman on his path to an imminent grave. A production--at least a professional production--that adheres to O'Neill's instructions is likely to succeed. What this production proves is that Moon is virtually tamper-proof--that it can win critical plaudits and public acclaim even when the author's instructions are, more often than not, flagrantly disregarded!


Nelligan (Josie), Bannen (Jim) and the irrepressible Jerome Kilty as Hogan.
(Photo by Richard Feldman)

Kate Nelligan as the club-wielding Josephine Hogan. (Photo by Richard Feldman.)

This Moon is very much a director's show, since Mr. Leveaux supervised all phases of the operation, devising the set design (executed by Brien Vahey) and overseeing the casting on both continents--all in the service of a concept or view of the play that's been hailed as "revisionist."2 Well, if revisionist simply means different, the epithet is appropriate. Leveaux sees the play as a blend of the naturalistic and the mythological, the topical and the universal, and has staged it accordingly. So, for a set, we have a lifelike ramshackle shanty placed, before a bare cyclorama, on a large, plain, whitish circular disk that looks more like a Martian launching pad than the front yard of a woebegone Connecticut farm. (A large, obviously fake rock in front of the house does no more to dispel disbelief than do the metallic-looking branches of a tree behind and above it, whose leaves are vaguely suggested by an unfocused projection on the cyclorama behind them.) The juxtaposition of the prosaic and the supposedly "symbolic" is jarring--especially when the disk is treated as a yard (running space for tomboyish Josie, tilting ground for sparring father and daughter, and site for the most piet- and crucifixion-evoking tableau the play has ever received); and when the shanty, so believable at the start, is relieved of its front wall by stagehands (spacemen?) while the action continues uninterrupted. Add occasional music (minimalist, and effectively evocative, by Stephen Endelman) and lighting that, especially from dusk to dawn, flaunts its allegiance to the Great God Belasco, and the result, revisionist or not, is a production that calls more attention to itself than to the play it is presumably intended to serve. (I should mention that the aforementioned elements received unanimous praise elsewhere--Frank Rich, for instance, finding the abstract disk suggestive of a "dreamy, abstracted realm of consciousness"3.)

Revisionism extended into the casting as well, in the choice of Kate Nelligan as Josie. Nelligan, like Frances de la Tour, her predecessor in the London production, lacks the gargantuan credentials called for in O'Neill's script and has in the past been associated with roles redolent of worldly sophistication. But in this case the innovation proved effective, since Nelligan, an extremely accomplished and sensitive actress, had full command of Josie's moments of tender and pathetic moonlit self-revelation, and also managed, by a studied plainness and a stridency of movement and voice, to convey the daytime, "public" Josie as well. Granted, the required effort called attention to itself: one never felt one was seeing a gruff strumpet, only someone playing a gruff strumpet. But that is all to the good, as the tender, virginal Josie is herself role-playing in donning the self-protective armor of a brassy persona. Kate Nelligan fully deserved her Tony nomination, if only for proving, as never before, her stunning versatility.

Jerome Kilty was wonderful as the father. A feisty, twinkle-eyed leprechaun, his Phil Hogan, despite moments when brogue overruled comprehension, brought out all the marvelous comedy of the opening scenes and later revealed the depths of love and sympathy for Josie that motivated his tricks and machinations.

Ian Bannen was berated by most critics for bringing more intelligence than feeling or intensity to his portrayal of Jim Tyrone and for providing Nelligan with no real partner for the play's long central duet. I cannot agree--any more than I can with his one New York defender, Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice, who found his Jim "charming and ingratiatingly sexy"!4 Jim Tyrone is as sexless as he is lifeless; the eleven years since Long Day's Journey have seen to that; and Bannen, with the slicked-back hair and pallid face of a corpse, walking like a zombie and speaking in a voice that alternated between thespian and wraith, captured perfectly the memory of Jamie O'Neill that the play lays to rest. In every way but clinically, Jim Tyrone is dead before he arrives at the Hogan farm; no moon-drenched miracle can bring him back to life; and an actor selfless enough to give us this, the real Jim Tyrone, deserves congratulation, not condemnation.

While the staging was, for me, more distracting than illuminating, David Leveaux brought much liveliness and physical activity to an essentially static script, revealed the Irish roots of the play's initial humor, chose an exceptionally fine cast, and left me eager to see him embark on other O'Neill projects. His is the Moon of the 1980s, though I doubt that anyone will ever better the Quintero-Robards-Dewhurst production of eleven years ago. If he will just give his complete trust to the playwright, and seek to educe universality from the performance rather than trying to thrust it upon it, we have much theatrical excitement to look forward to.

--Frederick C. Wilkins

1 Benedict Nightingale, "O'Neill's 'Moon'--A Flawed Masterpiece," New York Times (May 6, 1984), Sec. II, pp. 5, 8.

2 Samuel G. Freedman, "Revisionist 'Moon' By Young Director," New York Times (May 17, 1984), p. C17.

3 Frank Rich, "Nelligan in 'Moon for Misbegotten,'" New York Times (May 2, 1984), p. C21. In a later piece (May 27, 1984, Sec. II, p. 23), Rich said that, by examining Moon from a "new perspective," Leveaux "sent the play rising from a 1923 Connecticut dirt farm clear up to the celestial reaches of modernism." Despite its corroboration of my launching pad analogy, I'm afraid that Rich's remark is (in a word appropriate to Harder's charge against Hogan) hogwash. Give me dirt every time--the "local habitation" that art provides to evoke, tether and convey the "airy nothing" that can do, say and mean, nothing on its own, despite Rich's ecstatic eulogy.

4 "Inconstant Moon," Village Voice (May 8, 1984), p. 80.

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