Call it a lunar eclipse. Kevin Spacey is the marquee star of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," but in director Howard Davies' stirring new production, the great performance comes from Broadway rookie Eve Best. The British actress' debut is lustrous in the revival that opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson.
The play, Eugene O'Neill's last, is set in 1923 on an isolated and dilapidated Connecticut farm, rendered in ramshackle detail and landscaped in barren loneliness by Bob Crowley.
Spacey plays James Tyrone Jr. (based on O'Neill's brother Jamie), a hack actor intent on drinking himself to death. Best plays Josie Hogan, an ungainly farm woman whose Irish immigrant father, Phil (Colm Meaney), is a tenant on land owned by Tyrone.
Josie is deemed the town tramp, a reputation that masks her feelings for Jim. The truth about those emotions and about Jim's searing self-hatred come out one night when the two lost souls seek love and redemption in each other's arms.
Spacey has starred on Broadway in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh." This production of "Moon for the Misbegotten" transfers from London's Old Vic Theatre, where Spacey is artistic director. The double Oscar winner is clearly devoted to the playwright.
But as the boozy Jim Tyrone, Spacey is uneven and unpredictable. He has moments of subtle intensity, as when he covertly claws his legs to quiet delirium tremens, and he has a winning grin and effusive charm that explains Josie's attraction to this waste of a man. But too often Spacey showboats. He dances little jigs, flails his arms, blusters and retreats repeatedly. Sometimes he simply overacts, even for the role of a boozer. The exaggerated antics sap the power from his portrayal.
The slender Best isn't an "overgrown lump" or the "big ugly hulk" O'Neill describes, but she has a large, open face; wide, expressive eyes and a homey plainness that suit Josie. The actress downplays her femininity (sitting unlady-like and bolting about barefoot) and emphasizes her earthy strength (she all but rips the handle off a water pump when she cranks it).
Around Jim, her hardness melts into vulnerable girliness - and the chemistry between the actors is palpable. Late in the story, Phil curses Jim and Josie wails "Don't, Father! I love him." Her words pierce the heart with pure honesty. Best has won awards in London, and her immense talent shines brightly on Broadway.
Rounding out the cast are Billy Carter, as the Hogans' nitwit wealthy neighbor, and Eugene O'Hare, as Josie's brother, who leaves home in the first scene.
Director Howard Davies cut the play's four acts to have just one intermission, for a running time of under three hours. O'Neill's dialogue can ramble and repeat, but the story is invigorated by both its heartache and humor and holds you fast throughout.
Fiercely dramatic yet with nuanced staging, Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" is a long, wonderful night's journey into day.
The Old Vic Theater Company's adaptation is illuminated by a glistening Eve Best (making a magnificent New York debut), Kevin Spacey and Colm Meaney.
Directed by Howard Davies and imported intact from London, the production that opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson brilliantly shows off the Old Vic, newly revived under the aggressive leadership of Spacey, its artistic director.
It's a bold choice for a British company, even one with an American boss, to bring an American play to New York, especially a well-thumbed one last seen just seven years ago. Nor is it an easy play.
Unlike most major playwrights, O'Neill's bid for enduring greatness came perilously late - for it was only in his three final plays, drawn from his own life and family, that he hit the bull's-eye of immortality.
Looking at life through a dirty windowpane, they all deal with the loss of hope and the need for redemption. But because they are rooted so deeply in the human psyche, the chords they strike are those of recognition rather than despair.
As a writer, O'Neill was as bombastic as he was poetic - he must have been the worst indisputably great writer in history - but in these three dramatic peaks he lifts the soul like a magic conjuror.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten" meanders. It takes a long time to get going, a longer time to speed up, and quite a long time to run down.
Two people in uneasy love - the man, a middle-age drunken actor, and a brash, slightly younger woman who looks after her father, a tenant farmer - after a day of speculation spend one defining night under an unforgiving moon.
The main roles are clumsily molded out of theatrical gold: the woman, Josie, big-boned, big-hearted, cast somewhere between a teasing virgin and a brash whore; her father, Mike Hogan, a good-natured, cunning Irishman; and Hogan's easygoing landlord, Jim Tyrone, a failed actor, carrying a wagonload of guilt and a liver on its last legs.
As Josie, Best hits every note with a sweetly underscored emphasis. Her acting is as natural as breathing, with a technique that doesn't just disguise technique but disposes of it. Marvelous!
Spacey and Meaney are just the opposite: They exult in their technique. They not only let you see where every effect is coming from, they actually stand aside as if to share in your admiration. It doesn't matter. You gasp, but it works.
Director Davies, an experienced O'Neill hand, must have realized that two members of his cast were coming from a different place than the other one - as were his two brilliant supporting players, Eugene O'Hare and Billy Carter - and rightly decided to go along with it.
Meaney makes a gorgeous old goat of a father, and Spacey is superb as Tyrone. As in Spacey's last Broadway canter in "The Iceman Cometh," (1999) Jason Robards' mantle has floated down onto his shoulders, and he draws it around himself with impressive authority.
Bob Crowley's ramshackle shack of a homestead - a cross between an Andrew Wyeth painting and Disney - is perfect for the wild theatricality of a play that makes its own rules of engagement.
The woman who knows him best describes Jim Tyrone as a “dead man walking slow behind his own coffin.” But that’s sure not the impression given by Kevin Spacey’s beat-the-clock performance in Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten,” which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
Playing a graveyard-bound alcoholic in this off-kilter revival, a production of the Old Vic Theater Company from London, Mr. Spacey is as lively as a frog on a hot plate. When his Tyrone rails against the universe, it is with the frenzy of a fractious 2-year-old who has been told to eat his spinach. And he rattles off the play’s big confessional soliloquies as if they were the final verses of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.
What makes this Tyrone run — and I mean run? Is Mr. Spacey trying to evoke a man desperate to outrace his demons? Or is it just a matter of an artistic director, a role Mr. Spacey fills at the Old Vic, determined to hustle a famously long-winded show to the final curtain in less than three hours?
Such questions drift through the mind during this streamlined (two hours, 50 minutes — whew!) version of O’Neill’s last completed drama, a resounding critical hit in London, directed with an emphatically comic slant by Howard Davies. Mercifully Mr. Spacey’s hyperkinetic doings do not block the view of the actress playing his unlikely love interest, Eve Best, a sweetheart of the London stage in a commanding Broadway debut.
It may be the marquee power of Mr. Spacey, a two-time Oscar winner, that draws audiences to the Brooks Atkinson. But it is Ms. Best’s centered turn as a strapping country girl that will keep them from growing as antsy as her co-star.
During the past decade Ms. Best has emerged as London’s all-purpose leading lady in roles that run from mouse (“The Heiress”) to man-eater (“Hedda Gabler”). New Yorkers now have the welcome opportunity to savor the care and intelligence with which she constructs a character. The part of Josie, the rural giantess (“so oversize that she is almost a freak,” O’Neill writes), is not a natural one for the fine-boned Ms. Best, but she makes it fit.
Whether her presence alone warrants another trip to the run-down Connecticut tenant farm where Josie lives with her crafty father (Colm Meaney), and where Tyrone finally finds peace, is debatable. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was last on Broadway only seven years ago, in a production starring a brilliant Gabriel Byrne as Tyrone, with Cherry Jones as Josie. Older theater addicts cherish memories of the 1973 revival with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, still regarded by many as definitive.
Both those versions emphasized the pathos of “Moon,” written in 1943 and first produced on Broadway in 1957. Inspired by the unhappy final chapters in the life of O’Neill’s ne’er-do-well older brother, James, the play is singular within its author’s body of work for its forgiving spirit. The other drama in which Jim Tyrone appears, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” left him in limbo. “Moon” grants the same man absolution as he nears the end of a self-destructive existence.
The flip side of the haunted face of “Moon” is the mask of comedy, Irish yokel style. And it is this side that is stressed by Mr. Davies, who brought an irresistible tension several years ago to O’Neill’s unwieldy “Mourning Becomes Electra,” in a dynamite version at the National Theater in London, starring Ms. Best and Helen Mirren.
O’Neill was never, to put it kindly, a light-fingered humorist. Nor could his sentimental touch ever be called feathery. His greatness is in his despair. At times, especially as Josie and her father swap insults and scheme to outfox an arrogant patrician neighbor (played by Billy Carter), “Moon” can feel like a prequel to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” an impression confirmed by Bob Crowley’s Dogpatch set. And when Tyrone, the Hogans’s landlord, shows up for a drink, he fits right into their vaudevillian rhythms.
What the 2000 production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, brought out so affectingly was the extent to which the comic shenanigans are so much posturing — clownish roles assumed to keep harsher truths at bay. A great “Moon” progresses into the heart of the pain beneath the laughter.
Yet even in the play’s climactic scene, in which Tyrone reveals his love for Josie and the cancerous self-disgust that makes him drink, the audience keeps laughing. Mr. Spacey brings a stand-up artist’s timing to Tyrone’s reversals of mood so that they land like punch lines.
That Tyrone is a former small-time actor may have been the cue for the artificiality with which Mr. Spacey invests much of his dialogue. But I was always more conscious of the actor Kevin Spacey than of the actor James Tyrone. Mr. Spacey is a polished pro who can play himself like an organ. He dexterously pulls out the stops for sincerity, contempt and the swelling anger of an attention-starved, tantrum-prone child who never grew up.
But aside from a couple of searing moments, as when a delirious Tyrone mistakes Josie for a whore, these disparate notes never blend into the integrated music that makes a character real. The I’m-talking-as-fast-as-I-can delivery, which Mr. Spacey used to more persuasive effect in Mr. Davies’s fine 1999 production of “The Iceman Cometh,” mostly registers as shtick.
Mr. Spacey, by the way, was an excellent Jim Tyrone in the 1986 Broadway revival of “Long Day’s Journey,” a staging that — come to think of it — also had unusual breakneck pacing. Here, he often seems to be paying homage to the star of that production, Jack Lemmon, an actor who specialized in comic distress and sentimental anguish. This is a mistake, since even Mr. Lemmon wasn’t always convincing as Mr. Lemmon.
Mr. Meaney gives a solid, likable performance as Hogan that resists Pappy Yokum cuteness. But the night belongs to Ms. Best, who clearly and winningly maps the contradictory levels of Josie Hogan, both the blustery facade and the sensitive core. Her not matching O’Neill’s description of a big bruiser only feeds our sense that Josie has created a persona to hide behind, as Ms. Best clomps about the stage like a wrestler in search of a match.
The toll of sustaining this facade registers with touching specificity in the play’s penultimate scene, when a weary Josie collapses like a marionette with its strings cut. It has been hard shouldering all that pretense for so long. Of course the realism of the moment is probably enhanced by Ms. Best’s also having had to shoulder the entire emotional weight of a heavy play.
Feeling a little down lately? I've got the perfect tonic to lift your spirits: a rollicking revival of a play by that master of comedy, Eugene O'Neill.
I'm kidding, of course, at least about O'Neill having been a cutup. His epic tragedies have their lighter moments, but that doesn't account for the peals of laughter I heard through much of a recent preview of the new Broadway production of A Moon For the Misbegotten.
This boisterous but oddly tepid Moon first rose at London's Old Vic, where it earned leading man Kevin Spacey some of the most enthusiastic notices he has received during his turbulent tenure as artistic director there. For the show's current engagement, which opened Monday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Spacey imported the complete U.K. cast, including the celebrated British stage actress Eve Best and the beloved Irish character actor Colm Meaney.
I didn't catch that company across the Atlantic, but I did see Moon during its last Broadway run, with an equally distinguished group of actors led by Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones. As Jim Tyrone, the acerbic alcoholic bent on self-destruction, and Josie Hogan, the awkward old maid who hides her desperate loneliness behind a tomboyish swagger and a supposed string of rejected lovers, Byrne and Jones delivered witty but heartbreaking performances that elicited more tears than chuckles.
Best's Josie and Spacey's Tyrone, in comparison, can play like Kate and Petruchio having a flirtatious spat. Best barrels on stage like an angry construction worker and spends much of the first act shoving men, slamming doors and wringing clothes dry with a similar sense of restless aggression. It could be argued that mannish behavior is supposed to be Josie's defense mechanism, a function of her denial of feminine longing; but this lady protests too much too much.
Best does soften a bit in Spacey's presence, giving the screen star room for his own shtick. Tyrone calls himself a ham, which Spacey and director Howard Davies clearly perceived as license to indulge the sly comic prowess that helped put the actor on the map. His imitation of Meaney's brogue and subsequent impressions and wisecracks delighted the crowd.
But in darker, more crucial moments, we see less of the capacity for unmannered emotional intensity that made Spacey a major player in both film and theater. There are glimmers of it in some of Tyrone's tortured ramblings, just as Best brings wrenching pathos to Josie's patches of despair, particularly in her scenes with Meaney, who is superb as Josie's bumbling father.
Still, this Moon isn't as absorbing or affecting as it should have been. Let's hope its dynamic, resourceful leads are put to better use in future projects.
After some rough handling from the British press during much of his first two seasons as artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey found redemption in the glowing London reviews for "A Moon for the Misbegotten." But in its transfer to Broadway, Howard Davies' production of Eugene O'Neill's majestically melancholy play about last chances for love and absolution proves uneven, its equilibrium compromised by Spacey's showboating star turn as Jim Tyrone. He may be supplying what Broadway audiences come to see, but the actor is doing this great role a disservice.
Beyond the obvious challenge of its pronounced shift, midway, from comedy to romantic tragedy, O'Neill's final completed play requires a delicate balance in its weighting of the two main characters and their sorrowful tug of war between past and present.
Many argue over whether the drama's emotional center is citified Jim (based on the playwright's alcoholic older brother, James) or Josie Hogan, the earth-mother farmer's daughter whose unrequited love warms their moon-bathed, bourbon-soaked night of bared souls. For this lyrical, character-driven play to be fully effective, Jim's inescapable sorrow and Josie's wounded strength need to be invested with equal truth.
The masterful symbiosis achieved by Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in Jose Quintero's heartbreaking 1973 Broadway revival (preserved on DVD) may never be equaled. But the imbalance here is especially regrettable given Eve Best's stirring work as Josie.
A fixture in recent years on British stages whose credits include an Olivier-winning "Hedda Gabler" for the Almeida, the original "Coast of Utopia" at the National and Davies' production of O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" at the same address, Best is making a strong Broadway debut.
Lean and handsome, she's nothing like O'Neill's description of the character ("so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak") or Josie's dismissal of herself ("I'm only a big, rough, ugly cow of a woman"). But Best imbues her characterization with robust physicality and vigor, a startling absence of vanity, hearty humor and acrid self-deprecation co-existing with fierce pride and an enormous well of compassion.
A plucky sparring partner to her hard-drinking, widowed Irish father Phil (Colm Meaney) and a workhorse with the stamina of two men, Josie is playing a role of her own invention as the jaded town slut whose feelings are calloused almost to inexistence. "Brazen as brass and proud of your disgrace" is how Mike (Eugene O'Hare), the youngest of the brothers she ushers off to a better life, describes her.
But the beauty of Best's performance is precisely its emotional transparency. Her Josie is all bluff and bravado, stomping about in an ungainly fashion as if to dispel the idea she's a woman. We don't need to be told this is an act; we see it whenever she gets close to Jim. Best softens visibly, her face dissolving into a gentle, incandescent smile that erases her grubby plainness so we know Jim isn't lying when he tells her she's beautiful. And while maintaining the facade of imperviousness, her vulnerability becomes so acute that every tiny spark of happiness or hurt plays across her face like music.
No less than his daughter, Phil is also playing a role. He orchestrates the drama's minimal plot, hinging on the fear that Jim will evict his tenants from the farm and sell to their wealthy prig of a neighbor (Billy Carter). But while Phil ostensibly schemes to trick Jim into bedding and marrying Josie for his own gain, his motives are revealed as those of a loving father. Meaney's spirited perf nicely captures the idea that the farmer almost has himself fooled about this duality.
Davies makes clear from the start that he has little interest in naturalism. Bob Crowley's design sets the Hogans' crooked, weather-beaten shack on a barren patch of dirt and rocks with telegraph poles stretching back to an empty horizon, overhung by an azure sky made unnaturally brilliant by lighting wizard Mark Henderson. Coupled with occasional strains of Ry Cooder-esque guitar, this seems more like the Oklahoma Dust Bowl than Connecticut.
The director's heavy hand plays up the gabby first act's farcical tone, pushing for broad work in particular from Meaney, whose facility for clowning blarney with a bullying edge is familiar from his film work. But while this approach feeds into O'Neill's scheme of shifting by degrees into sadness, the production's destabilization begins here.
From the moment Jim enters, Spacey gives a performance of such swaggering self-regard that it's impossible to believe him as a man made hollow by grief and guilt. A failed Broadway actor who says of himself, "Once a ham, always a ham," Jim's flamboyance is essential. But without a window to his haunted soul, the character is incomplete. Spacey at no time suggests a man so despairing he wishes only to die in his sleep.
Like Cate Blanchett in "Hedda Gabler" last season, Spacey is a gifted actor with formidable technique, packing too much ego to entirely serve a complex role. And like Robards before him, Spacey has now performed O'Neill's big three on Broadway, following "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh." But his completion of the triad is a disappointment. When he sinks into Jim's cancerous self-disgust, there are flashes of the role's affecting torment. But he continually undercuts the pathos by shamelessly courting the audience, too often punctuating the bleak revelations with smug line-readings colored by sardonic humor.
O'Neill's writing in Josie and Jim's moonlight pas de deux has such doleful grandeur that it withstands Spacey's pyrotechnics. But the devastating outpouring of anguish in his confessional monologue about a train journey to accompany his mother's body from California back East is diminished by all the actor's shouting and flailing arms. A drama in which lies and protective shields dissolve to reveal the truth -- leaving Jim on a fast track to doom and Josie to face the future with new self-awareness -- demands honesty from its actors.
That honesty is vivid and unpolluted only in the spiritual warmth of Best as Josie cradles her wounded "child" in still-virginal arms at dawn, her tenderness enveloping the audience.