Once the director, Jonathan Miller, allows the play to breathe and speak for itself, the overwhelming power of O'Neill's masterwork, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," sweeps over us to engulf, destroy, and somehow cleanse us, as it always must.
And oddly enough, it is not so much Jack Lemmon's earnest and energetic performance as the father, James Tyrone, or Bethel Leslie's wraithlike appearance as the mother; Mary, that carry us most deeply to the heart of the matter in last night's revival at the Broadhurst, as it is the anguished, tearing scene between the sons, searingly set forth by Peter Gallagher as Edmund and Kevin Spacey as Jamie.
Miller has saved all his energy for these last two awesome acts - we first come under the spell of Mary's reverie, then are caught up in the classic confrontation of father and son Edmund, followed by the boys' drunken bout spinning toward the sudden terror of the final scene.
During the first two acts of the evening, Miller is impatiently leading us toward the grand scenes of the final two acts, and his impatience takes its toll on the actors as well as on us.
Not only does he rush the speeches, so that they come to sound like the disembodied, rapid-fire deliveries of sportscasters, he also has them overlap pell-mell on top of one another, leaving us to decide which voice to pick up on. Family bickering can be this disjointed, but rarely so unintelligible.
But he finally makes amends with the stirringly-staged second half. A shambling, white-maned Lemmon does achieve force and a kind of shine in his account of remembered glory, but he never becomes transcendent. Leslie's thin voice, only truly acceptable as Mary plunges deeper into her morphine dreams, is unfortunately allowed to reach us in flat, childlike tones from the very beginning.
But Gallagher's Edmund blazes in the scene with the father, and he is matched by Spacey in a shaping of the drunken Jamie that has strong but entirely applicable echoes of Jason Robards.
Tony Straiges' setting accurately suggests a drafty, cheaply-furnished New England summer home, and Richard Nelson's lighting spares no corner of this chilly, fogbound dwelling. Willa Kim's costumes are equally fine.
In the end, it is O'Neill's incomparable strength that carries the evening.
Occasionally, very occasionally, a wind of greatness blows through the theater. There is a kind of hush of recognition as the audience reassembles its feelings after it has experienced emotions that come dangerously, thrillingly, as close to life as they come to art.
May I suggest that Eugene O'Neill, director Jonathan Miller and actor Jack Lemmon, are causing that kind of stirring in the bullrushes with Long Day's Journey Into Night which opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater. It was theater at its greatest, its most vital, most immediate.
No man is a vacuum - not even a critic. We arrive at our appointed theaters with certain expectations and assorted preconceptions. We are not objective virgins.
I approached this new staging with some trepidation. It is a play that - warts and all - I love desperately. From Frederic March onward, I have been lucky enough to have seen all the major interpreters of James Tyrone in the English-speaking world, and I have developed, dangerously for a critic, an almost proprietary attitude towards the piece.
My trepidation was not lulled by stories that Mr. Miller was offering us a "revisionist" view of the play!
Now, I am not any particular admirer of Jonathan Miller as a director - he too often imposes his own clever little interpretation above the interests of the artist in his promiscuous search for originality.
Nor, to be honest, did Jack Lemmon seem a particularly likely candidate for that eroded, monumental thespian James Tyrone, an actor who once crossed swords with Edwin Booth, who even praised his Othello!
Lemmon as Othello? Olivier, of course, even Ralph Richardson or March, or Robert Ryan, or most of the others, but Lemmon?
Is it so far-fetched, though? And how about Lemmon as Iago? Could he not have been a classical actor - and does this really matter vitally to the play?
All we really need to know is that James Tyrone is a man who has, in his own eyes, failed through the excess of success - by doing a small thing too often. In his case it was a hack play, The Count of Monte Cristo, which he made his own and lost his chance to do a big thing even once.
To some extent, this is where Miller's "revisionism" emerges. He takes the play at its own page-value, disregarding the briefly accumulated theatrical tradition associated with it.
He accepts the unhappy Tyrones simply as an American family at the turn of the century, not as a dramatic essay in autobiography. Thus the "historic truth" about O'Neill's actor-father doesn't matter.
The only facts that concern Miller are the dramatic truths of a man and his family. Tyrone's tragedy is that his one tragic flaw ("the fault, Dear Brutus") is an inbuilt lack of security: a fear of poverty that leads him to small, made extravagances of meanness. He is a pathological miser.
When he puts out the lights, he is not exhibiting some half-amusing foible; he is showing how in the wrong destiny, tragedy can creep in through the smallest chinks of a life.
His niggardliness - his fears and terrors - have made his wife a drug addict, one of his sons a drunk and the other son, his youngest and most talented, a prime candidate for early death through tuberculosis.
Miller's approach is unusual in that it seems to take little concern in aligning the play with O'Neill's own life, so that we are not encouraged to see the actual young O'Neill in the play's Edmund, or even his mother, in the tragic Mary Tyrone.
Possibly another divergence from tradition stems from what appears to be Miller's belief that O'Neill was a playwright of action rather than words, raw feelings rather than intellectualized emotions. This is not a discovery, but acting upon it, permitting the sub-text to dominate the actual words spoken, is daring.
So this classic family squabbles not with eloquence but with an over-lapping clash of words - at times a babbling babel of argument.
People have already mentioned this "over-lapping" - one character starting a line before another finishes his. Miller's generation in Britain - more or less my generation - was much struck by the post-war appearances of the Lunts and their much commented on "over-lapping."
Wherever it comes from, it works beautifully here, giving the family a realism it never possessed before.
I recall the magnificent quartet reading Michael Blakemore elicited from Olivier, Constance Cummings, Ronald Pickup and Denis Quilley (it can still be seen occasionally in the TV movie) for Britain's National Theater.
Here, every word resonated out, often flatly. Miller takes the play at a bound - these people talk unthinkingly, they wound without literature, or even the pretense of speechmaking.
The play is exposed, raw, bleeding. However, Tony Straiges' setting is highly stylized, Willa Kim's costumes beautifully, unrealistically rumpled-romantic, and the lighting by Richard Nelson traces day into night with calibrated beauty.
In this background, Miller places deliberately low-keyed but brilliantly gauged performance. Apart from Lemmon, the actors are not particularly well-known, but they are particularly wonderful.
Watching Bethel Leslie as the most touching, thoughtful, stained Mary Tyrone, I found myself wondering where she had been all of my life. This is a marvelous performance - almost a definitive reading.
Miller gets the same kind of actuality from Peter Gallagher (a very Swinburne of a sailor in a blue peajacket) as Edmund, and the lost, vacillating Kevin Spacey as the charmingly dissolute Jamie. Even Jodie Lynn McClintock charms as the plumply unimaginative maidservant, Cathleen.
And last, and always, here is Lemmon wandering, eyeless in Gaza, through the play as James Tyrone - lost, betrayed by his past, a loving man who finds himself killing everything he loves.
The miasmic pain of Lemmon, the walk, the eyes, the voice! Especially that voice, from its jocular nervous opening to the night's final long cry - that tortured gurgle from the throat is the most terrible noise to echo in our playhouses since Olivier's 40-year-old primal cry of guilt in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.
This is a strangely vibrant Journey, showing no exaggerated respect for the play and almost peeling it down to its classic Shakespearean/Strindbergian statement of destiny, human frailty and the stars of life's unyielding night.
Here is one of the landmark productions of the English-speaking theater in our time.
If there's one word said more often than any other in Eugene O'Neill's ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' it must be ''fog.'' The fog in this play doesn't come on little cat feet; its arrival is predicted incessantly in the Connecticut summer home where the author's surrogate family, the four haunted Tyrones, will settle the scores of a lifetime during a single day in 1912. And once the fog has swallowed up the household, as with nightfall it must, it brings both sadness and peace to O'Neill's pitiful brood. The alcohol-fueled journey into the fog in ''Long Day's Journey'' is a journey back through time. When the Tyrones finally accept that ''the past is the present,'' they can begin to forgive, if not forget, the betrayals of which their tragic history is made.
As the fog of ''Long Day's Journey'' has a swirling movement, so does its dramatic structure. The play repeats its cycles of recriminations, confessions and apologies, gathering more force with each round. But in the director Jonathan Miller's startling new production, now at the Broadhurst, the author's rhythms are deliberately broken. There's little fogbound about this fast-paced ''Long Day's Journey,'' which clocks in at three hours (one intermission included). A diligent cast led by Jack Lemmon as the Tyrone father, James, gives us a family prone to flash floods of bickering in which the loudest antagonist drowns out the others. We're not slowly enveloped by the Tyrones' past so much as yanked there in fits and starts.
After David Leveaux (''A Moon for the Misbegotten'') and Keith Hack (''Strange Interlude''), Mr. Miller is the third and most daring English director to rethink O'Neill in as many Broadway seasons. In his ''Long Day's Journey,'' some lines are shouted down, others are trimmed and still others are rattled off so quickly that the mother, Mary, persuades us that her morphine addiction produces symptoms often associated with amphetamines. There's a case to be made for Mr. Miller's experiment. The greatest play in our dramatic literature has become an icon that theatergoers can't always visit innocently anymore. This director wants us to see the work fresh, as if it and its autobiographical characters had no history, and, to an extent, he succeeds. This is an engrossing evening for those who want to think about ''Long Day's Journey,'' although not, I'm afraid, for those who want to feel it.
Indeed, the Robert Altman-style bursts of overlapping dialogue are so cleverly done that we're at first more conscious of the theatrical technique than of the characters. After the novelty wears off, we realize that Mr. Miller is forcing us to listen to the lines as a family's animated conversation rather than as portentous signals of impending doom in a Great American Tragedy. This is how relatives might converse if, as the youngest son, Edmund, puts it, they're regurgitating old grievances they've all heard ''a million times'' before. A burden is lifted from some of the trivial exchanges, at times with the dividend of found laughter. But when the major monologues and confrontations arrive, Mr. Miller is no fool; he puts on the brakes.
This is particularly true after intermission, when the production achieves its instances of raw power. Mr. Lemmon - his voice fading into a low rumble as his body sinks defeatedly into a couch - is affecting as he bitterly rues the financially lucrative role that sapped Tyrone's promise as an actor. Bethel Leslie, as Mary, retrieves the mad mother's girlish naivete in her long soliloquy, recalling how the young James wooed her away from convent propriety. Peter Gallagher's Edmund gives us the poet as well as the consumptive; his intelligence and sensitivity flare so dangerously in his big dark eyes that, in his nihilistic reveries of the sea, we see the birth of O'Neill as an artist. Kevin Spacey's Jamie, his body contorted by booze, finally transcends his cynical Broadway sport's bitchery to reach out tenderly to the younger sibling he wants both to love and destroy.
Yet even these individual achievements can't fill in the missing pieces in O'Neill's painful exorcism of the Tyrones' ghosts. Some crucial scenes, including the father's angriest battles with his sons and the mother's final descent into insanity, leave scant impact. We wonder whether Mr. Miller's novel approach to the text is responsible for the shortfall -even Mary's last scene is slightly revised - or whether the generally good acting in this ''Long Day's Journey'' isn't quite good enough.
There's a little blame for everyone. It's a pleasure to report that Mr. Lemmon, a wonderful comic actor who turned to mush in the serious roles that followed the lachrymose ''Save the Tiger,'' is highly disciplined here. He creates Tyrone, the old ham, without being hammy himself. His mane of silver hair, whiskey voice and slightly stooped walk - not to mention his sense of humor - all serve the faded matinee idol well. But this star still can't quite bring himself to let an audience hate him, however transitorily. Although Mr. Lemmon illuminates the redemptive aspects of the father that O'Neill finally forgave in this penultimate play, he neglects the balancing black side - the poisonous, ''stinking old miser'' whose pathological behavior helped prompt the rage and self-destruction the others now exhibit before us.
Miss Leslie, whose ravaged Mary is exceptionally beautiful, is most effective when her eyes retreat in a junkie's fear of self-disclosure, when her nervous hands clutch the cross around her neck, or when she is mothering the favored Edmund (even as she tries to torture him with guilt). Her failure to sound the deepest notes of despair in the loneliest of matriarchs may in part be a function of her voice, which is thin and narrowly nasal in range. Mr. Spacey's technically impressive Jamie can also lack depth, but Mr. Gallagher is, as usual, above reproach: Edmund has rarely seemed a fuller or, when acting out a fast-action precis of ''Macbeth,'' funnier character.
Perhaps if Mr. Miller hadn't devoted so much energy to the tricky verbal logistics of his concept, he might have induced a more consistent pitch of passion from the entire cast. It's also possible that the concept could be more uniformly executed - Tony Straiges's well-designed but somewhat abstract set is an arty obstacle to the plain naturalism of the cross talk - or that the concept is faulty. ''Long Day's Journey,'' unlike the earlier ''Mourning Becomes Electra'' or ''Strange Interlude,'' does not carry the excess baggage of a writer straining for poetic grandeur. The circular repetitions and loquacity of the mature O'Neill masterpieces may be as integral to their inexorable grip as pauses and reticence are to Beckett's.
The director seems to recognize that something is missing. Presumably to add emotional kick, there's some strategically placed table pounding in Acts I and II; each of the final two acts ends with Mr. Lemmon's providing melodramatic vocal effusions not in the text. These retrograde interjections don't detract from the fascination of a provocative staging that genuinely shakes the dust off a theatrical monument. But in his desire to give us O'Neill without tears, Mr. Miller has muted a work ''written in tears and blood.'' When this ''Long Day's Journey'' ends, the night seems young not just because a long play runs shorter but because we're still waiting for that dark, cathartic fog to roll in.