If Eugene O'Neill's final play "A Moon for the Misbegotten" were a piece of music, it would be a country and western song awash with booze, failure and self-pity. But it would be Hank Williams rather than Tammy Wynette. O'Neill's play may at times wallow in grief and loss but in Daniel Sullivan's fine revival, it has the authentic tang of cheap whisky and the true odor of hopes gone sour. "A Moon" is O'Neill's lament for his brother Jim, who died of alcoholism in his early 40s. It tries to give him in the imagination the things he never found in reality - solace, forgiveness, peace. The good witch who grants him this blessing is Josie, a pig farmer's daughter of deliberately mythic proportions. Huge, strong and savage-tongued, she is part pagan Earth Mother, part Catholic Virgin Mary. Pitched in this way somewhere between brutal realism and magical fable, the play asks its actors for a special kind of emotional suppleness. For the most part, Gabriel Byrne as Jim, Cherry Jones as Josie and Roy Dotrice as her father Phil have what it takes. There is one element they cannot supply because O'Neill didn't quite manage to write it. Essentially, "A Moon" is about two sets of relationships between parents and their children. The edgy love between Josie and her father is given a completely vivid life by O'Neill. But the darker bond between Jim and his dead mother, though equally central to the play, is never fully imagined by O'Neill. This absence keeps "A Moon" from being a truly great play. It also makes Byrne's task much more difficult than Jones' and Dotrice's. While they can give complete accounts of their characters, he has to embody a pain whose source is never quite clear. He manages it well enough to create a truly memorable portrayal of torment and despair. But the miracle that O'Neill tries for, in which the shattered fragments of Jim's life become whole again for a few moments, never really happens. Jones and Dotrice, though, take full advantage of O'Neill's ability to spin in language the rich web of lies, collusions, war and love that binds them together. On the surface, Jones lacks the physical massiveness that is central to Josie's presence. But she occupies her space on stage with such heft and gravity that she creates something even better - a convincing image of both physical and emotional magnitude. Dotrice plays off her brilliantly, extracting full value from the comic contrast between her rock-like presence and Phil's fidgety, excitable motion. Dotrice's tireless energy allows director Daniel Sullivan to vary the mood and pace of the play and pick a path around the swamps of sentiment that lie dangerously close to O'Neill's emotional honesty. Though the light of this "Moon" is never completely clear, it is always alluring.
Cherry Jones is a compact country woman as Josie Hogan. True, she's not "so oversize that she is almost a freak," as Eugene O'Neill demanded. She's short and compact, but she's got the rhythms of the land in her body. Her legs, her arms, her clothes are those of a farm woman -- and a teasing, savvy, but good-hearted woman.
She gets to play close to the earth in O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the dramatist's final play, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre. We are thrust up against the Hogan farm. Designer Eugene Lee's area of life -- the bare-bones farm and the rocks and a tree -- are a testament to raw survivalism. Director Daniel Sullivan forces the action into this area.
In this farewell drama, the playwright returns to the figure of the older son, James Tyrone Jr., some 11 years after he was seen in "Long Day's Journey into Night," blaming his mother for her tragic state. By this time, in 1923, James is the only Tyrone left in Connecticut, and he is paying a visit to his tenant farmers, the Hogans. Though the Tyrones are his own family, O'Neill has pretty much invented the Hogans.
At first, we see Josie being kind to her brother, a virtuous Irishman who has longed to escape her father (a fine performance by Paul Hewitt). She has packed his bag and gives him money to scamper off to her brothers, who've made good in the city.
She doesn't appreciate her brother's virtue; "you're worse than decent, you're virtuous," she asserts, declaring in general she won't join him in goodness and specifically refusing his advice, for "I don't want a decent man." She packs him off, with a revealing combination of roughness and gentleness, and softens the wrath of not-really-angry dad.
Jones is sharp and funny, as she moves about the lawn and teases her father. He is the genial Roy Dotrice, a spry, greedy rapscallion, glad to be rid of his last son and eager to instruct his daughter in his land-grabbing scheme. She insists she wants to be free of her father's devices and squats. But she listens to him -- for she has reasons of her own. Will she, a notorious seductress, go along with her father's entrapment scheme?
Enter James Tyrone, whom Gabriel Byrne makes a man still retaining a noble, amused affection for the Hogans. He quotes Virgil and asks "How is the Duke of Donegal?" He appreciates the Hogans -- with all their scheming against him, to lure him into marriage with Josie.
Later on, Josie is in a red dress; she has been expecting James for some two hours and angrily agrees to cooperate with a scheme of her father, who is pretending to be drunker than he is. Eventually, James shows up excuseless, and relaxes upon her breast, demanding a drink. She emerges with a bottle of bourbon and joins him.
He praises her beauty, despite her disclaimers and she kisses him. He takes off her stockings and shoes, but he is not hungry for her body. He has seen through her lies about promiscuity and wants her to listen to him, to offer him that form of "love" that is above flesh. She gets it and makes him lie on her bosom and unburden himself of his oppressive secret (while traveling on a train with his mother's body, he spent time with a whore).
She gives him the only kind of love he is able to accept -- the love that is compassion. In the morning, she sends him off, clean after a chaste night spent on her breast. Her father, now not pretending to be drunk, is regretful about Tyrone, but still feisty and humorous. She now sees that she is more her father's daughter than anything else and agrees to fix him breakfast, wishing "forgiveness and peace" for the doomed Tyrone.
In this final play, O'Neill was according, through the wholly believable figure of Josie, forgiveness to his brother. It is a weird and compelling work, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," which is here brilliantly played, for all its humorous and clamorous humanity, by Cherry Jones, Roy Dotrice and Gabriel Byrne.
So many feelings in each awkward kiss; such endless shades of response in a quick clasping of hands.
Every time Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne make physical contact in the heart-stopping new production of ''A Moon for the Misbegotten,'' the floodgates open to a tide of clashing emotions.
Exaltation and disgust, hunger and resignation and, most acutely, a sorrow that is all the more profound for the faint sparks of hope it lets shine through: you see flickers of all these elements from the moment Ms. Jones, the Tony-winning star of ''The Heiress,'' and Mr. Byrne, the accomplished Irish film actor, first brush against each other in the revival of Eugene O'Neill's great, elegiac love story that opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater.
The characters they portray -- Josie Hogan, a Junoesque farm woman, and James Tyrone, a self-consuming alcoholic actor -- are, on one level, as opposite as the quick and the dead, as the flesh and the spirit. Ms. Jones is the image of earthy robustness, with her wide-legged stance and wrestler's arms; Mr. Byrne has the wan, mechanical air of a man who has already abdicated his spot among the living. But it is clear here that Josie and James are each wearing a mask that only the other can remove.
What makes this ''Moon,'' which has been lovingly directed by Daniel Sullivan, so illuminating is the extraordinary transparency of its stars: their ability to play, and display, all those layers at once. To watch Ms. Jones, Mr. Byrne and Roy Dotrice, who completes the triangle of principal performers, react to one another is to realize the degree to which O'Neill's last completed play is about how everyone is an actor, a deceiver by necessity.
Accusations, delivered both playfully and angrily, of lying and of bluffing are leveled throughout this account of one of the strangest and most transfixing courtships in American theater. The practical ruses and schemes perpetrated by Josie and her hard-drinking, conniving father (Mr. Dotrice) are reflections of deeper forms of illusion.
As in his other, better-known play featuring James, ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' O'Neill considers the routines of speech and attitude, often as fixed as vaudeville acts, with which family members and friends deal with one another. In ''Moon,'' however, he allows his characters glimpses into the truth of themselves that heal instead of sear.
Its great, fabled moment of redemption for James, a part modeled closely on O'Neill's brother (also named James), comes from having confession lead to absolution. This may be natural cause and effect in the Roman Catholic Church, into which O'Neill was born; it is usually not the case in the harsh universe of his plays.
Written in 1943, ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' has a fitting history for a play about redemption. O'Neill described it in later years as ''a poor thing,'' which ''I have come to loathe.'' When it was first seen on Broadway, in a 1957 production starring Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone, it was greeted with head-shaking sadness. ''It is not so much an ascent into tragedy as a descent into squalor,'' wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times.
Yet 16 years later Walter Kerr, writing in the same paper, said the play ''just may be O'Neill's richest work for the theater.'' This assessment was inspired by a new production, with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards directed by Jose Quintero, that was regarded as definitive.
When a third Broadway incarnation arrived in 1984, directed by David Levaux, the critical response, especially to Kate Nelligan's Josie, suggested that there was still room for theatrical variations on ''Moon.'' Masterpieces, it seems, never stop growing, and the current production emanates both a springtime freshness and an autumnal mellowness.
Mr. Sullivan and his company have infused the play with a mixture of cleareyed observation and a warm, luminous empathy that melts the performance's solid three hours into a quick-coursing stream. This achievement is the more remarkable when you consider that the script's components, examined individually, seem as dense and blunt as the rocks that dominate the landscape of the untillable Connecticut farm on which the play takes place.
Those rocks are very much in evidence in Eugene Lee's set, which suggests a rural scene by Thomas Hart Benton. There before you is the requisite ramshackle farmhouse and the rusty old pump and the laundry of overalls on the line. Theatergoers new to ''Moon'' might anticipate a New England answer to ''Tobacco Road.''
In some ways, they wouldn't be wrong. Josie and her professionally Irish father, Phil, spend much of the play's first half-hour indulging in a gruff, showy banter that doesn't quite disguise the overly extensive exposition about their friend and landlord, James, and their relationship with him.
Mr. Dotrice's Phil initially comes across as a Gaelic Pappy Yokum, cute and crafty and full of blarney. The first act's comic centerpiece has Josie and Phil, assuming the roles of threatening Irish barbarians, humiliating an arrogant, rich neighbor (Tuck Milligan). They're putting on a show, of course, for themselves and for their appreciative audience of one, James, who has by that point arrived and hidden inside the house.
What this production makes especially clear is that they have been putting on a show all the time. So has James, whose talk with Phil and Josie takes the form of barbs and banter that you know is the product of long association. Yet as soon as Mr. Byrne enters, you can sense that James, obviously near the end of a fraying tether, has grown impatient with this particular currency of friendship. ''Cut out the kidding, Josie,'' he says wearily. Getting past the kidding, it turns out, is what gives this production its momentum.
Each of the three principal players dextrously suggests a slightly exaggerated, slightly bogus persona on first appearance, while allowing a sense of a more fragile, serious self to peek through. Mr. Dotrice is all feisty charm and drunken palaver, yet his eyes are shrewd and, fleetingly, a bit frightened.
Ms. Jones's Josie, the self-proclaimed strumpet of the countryside, has the air of a roguish Rabelaisian giant, tough-tongued and intimidatingly large of gesture. (Just watch her rip the laundry off the clothes line or unlace a pair of boots.) But there is evidence of an uncertain girlishness behind the bravado.
Mr. Byrne's James has the wry papery voice and stylized mannerisms of the wastrel actor who has spent too many nights on Broadway and the Bowery of the early 1920's. Then there are those truly shocking moments when his face goes as blank as a cadaver's, and you realize that those fancy finger waves with which he punctuates the lighting of a cigarette are used to camouflage delirium tremens.
The unmasking of these characters in the play's second and third acts is both inevitable and startling. Watch for Mr. Dotrice's abrupt, magical conversion from delirious drunkenness into all-too-conscious sobriety. And the seduction gone wrong between Josie and James that is the play's dramatic center is magnificently executed by Ms. Jones and Mr. Byrne.
They grope through a maze of poses and stratagems to define their feelings for each other, a process that offers some memory-branding moments. Watch what happens every time this pair tries to kiss or embrace, rendered as a sharply limned series of conflicting impulses. Pay attention to Josie's hapless, yet stirringly sexual attempt to play the vamp, hiking her skirt above her knees. And notice how James registers the abrupt arrival of poisonous memories with the startled pain of someone stabbed from behind.
Each is finally brought to a painfully wrought climax of self-revelation. Ms. Jones delivers hers with a sad yet enchanting air of violated modesty, and then generously turns the stage over to Mr. Byrne for the astonishing confession of shame he offers up while cradled in Ms. Jones's arms.
Criticism of previous productions of ''Moon'' has often centered on Josie's dominance in a play that was written by O'Neill as a benediction for the dead brother on whom James is based. This is definitely not a problem here. Mr. Byrne's long third-act monologue, its shifts in mood exquisitely set off by Pat Collins's lighting, is a harrowing act of self-administered surgery, etched in escalating degrees of pain. It is, in a word, brilliant, itself the stuff of theatrical legend.
Ms. Jones is quiet for most of that speech, which is not to say that she disappears. She becomes instead an almost elemental presence, embodying the radiant spirit of acceptance and forgiveness that makes ''Moon'' unlike anything else O'Neill wrote.
She also somehow remains affectingly, achingly human in her transfiguration. And we leave the theater wishing not only that we could have such a confessor as Ms. Jones's Josie, but also that we might have the power to offer such comfort to another. O'Neill assumed both roles in writing this play. This splendid production makes sure that, vicariously, we do, too.
Broadway's new revival of Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" offers reason to celebrate, but also much to mourn. The good news is very good indeed: Making his New York stage debut, Gabriel Byrne gives a devastatingly beautiful performance as James Tyrone Jr., the booze-addled drifter who stalks this late O'Neill masterwork like a wraith. But the bad is almost as bad: As the woman in whose arms he finds a brief refuge from the self-hatred that flows as freely as liquor in his veins, Cherry Jones, a great treasure of the New York theater, comes inexplicably, unbelievably to grief.
From the moment Byrne shuffles onstage, wearing a rumpled brown suit like a husk, his Jim Tyrone perfectly embodies the aching soul of the play. The character was closely modeled on O'Neill's alcoholic brother, and his wrenching second-act confession -- a pathetic tale of misbehavior upon his mother's death -- is a transcription of real events from James O'Neill Jr.'s life. The play is O'Neill's offer of absolution to a beloved but wayward brother, and it glows with a quiet, almost religious feeling of mercy and benediction.
Byrne's Jim Tyrone moves with the gentle steps of a man with a lifetime hangover and, as he trades barbs with Josie Hogan (Jones) and her humorously cantankerous father Phil (Roy Dotrice), his voice has a cracked quality, his eyes a vacant but tender glassiness. In various ways, Byrne subtly conveys the idea that Jim is a man whose heart and soul are no less ravaged than his liver; just on the cusp of middle age, he looks to be at death's door.
Josie and Phil are dirt-poor tenant farmers living on land inherited by Jim from his actor father (the Tyrones are the family from O'Neill's similarly autobiographical "Long Day's Journey Into Night"). A sometime actor, Jim has apparently returned from his usual haunts in the lower depths of Broadway to arrange details of his father's will. His arrival raises Phil's fearful suspicion that Jim will oust them from the farm, on which back rent is long overdue. This question provides the play's laundry line of a plot, on which O'Neill hangs some of his richest comedy as well as his most numinously affecting poetry.
In fact, Jim hasn't come for any worldly reasons, but to rest his head and heart on the breast of Josie, the one woman whose goodness, he believes, can assuage his feelings of unworthiness. Josie is deeply in love with Jim, and has put a brave face on a lonely life by pretending to wantonness -- mocking her own homeliness, but aping the lascivious tarts that Jim can't keep away from. The heart of the play is the long, liquor-soaked scene between Josie and Jim in which he finds the courage to confess his deepest shame and ask for forgiveness for his transgressions from a surrogate mother, Josie. Beneath the benevolent glow of a full moon, Josie blesses and forgives him, even as she realizes that it means her own hopes for a deeper, lasting love that would truly unite them can never be.
A hush descends upon the theater in this exquisitely written scene, broken only by sobs of sympathy erupting from the audience. The laughter that rolled freely through the ripely comic first act, thanks to Dotrice's antic, sensationally funny turn as the wily Phil, is all but forgotten. Cradled in Jones' arms, Byrne delivers Jim's aria of grief and guilt and self-disgust with breathtaking emotional transparency, his sins seeming to flash vividly before his glittering eyes. It's a speech that descends to the soul's darkest places, and a false note or stagy gesture can be disastrous. Byrne rises to its challenges magnificently.
Jones has a soft, self-effacing sympathy in this scene as Josie quietly embraces Jim's emotional upheavals. But a vital quality of tender grace, of spiritual power, is missing from most of her performance, which must qualify as the saddest, most surprising disappointment of the theater season. What can have happened? It's impossible to believe that Jones, a luminous presence in previous productions, doesn't have the capacity to find and transmit the towering humanity of this rich character.
Perhaps the fault lies with Jones and director Daniel Sullivan's conception of the character. Or perhaps Jones was daunted by the pressure of stepping into a role so powerfully associated with a revered predecessor (Colleen Dewhurst, of whom Jones has often spoken with admiration). Whatever the cause, she gives a surprisingly constricted, dry performance that imbalances the production and breaks your heart in all the wrong ways.
She accentuates the most superficial aspects of Josie's character -- her feigned, truculent toughness, a cantankerousness inherited from her father -- without sufficiently communicating the presence of the deeply loving woman beneath the tough hide. Jones' Josie is all weather-beaten surface, hectoring her father with little of the tongue-in-cheek humor that would soften the exchanges, or harshly belittling herself without hinting at the deep insecurity underneath. There's little warmth in the performance, and the result is a vital energy lacking in the production as a whole.
There is also something mildly askew about Eugene Lee's studiously realistic set, which is perfect for the gritty comedy of the play's first half but all wrong for the poetic magic of the second. Dotrice, however, nimbly and touchingly makes the transition from cranky cutup in the first act to deeply loving father in the second.
While hardly misbegotten, then, this "Moon" is nonetheless not what it might have been and should have been. Byrne's fierce, wounding performance as Jim Tyrone will not soon be forgotten, but it will haunt the memory with a companion, the ghost of the performance one had hoped for from Cherry Jones, a great actress here working at less than her best. Even the most incandescent of moons, it seems, can sometimes be eclipsed.