Wednesday, April 27, 2016

An Admirable "Journey," If Not a Great One

Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

John Gallagher, Jr. and Jessica Lange in the latest Broadway revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

There's always been something off about the Tyrones, the highly dysfunctional family unit at the center of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night. Slowly learning the many ways in which the Tyrone family isn't what it seems is one of the drama's chief pleasures, with each new revelation forcing you to reconsider your feelings about the four deeply damaged characters onstage. But in the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival of this American classic, something is even more off than usual, and it holds this fine production back from the transcendent heights it so desperately wants to achieve.

The cast of stage and screen veterans assembled here certainly dives into their meaty roles with abandon, with each cast member offering a perfectly valid and often fascinating take on their member of the Tyrone clan. Yet these performances don't quite stylistically mesh with one another, so at times it feels like four separate productions occurring simultaneously rather than one seamless whole. Whether this is a fault in casting or direction is up for debate, but it is a noticeable issue which distracts from the impressive acting of the cast.

As the family patriarch James, Gabriel Byrne is wonderfully understated, convincingly reserved and world weary from a life full of regret and emotional turmoil. Byrne does an excellent job of using the character's Irish bluster to hide his true insecurities, and his deeply expressive eyes make it clear that every insult and accusation hurled his way stings even though James rarely vocalizes his hurt. His is an all-too-real remorse that is quietly devastating, anchoring the showier performances around him with genuine human gravitas.

Jessica Lange is often captivating as the alternatively fragile and ferocious matriarch Mary, and is particularly effective in the scenes where the character rapidly shifts from one emotional extreme to another. Lange makes the character's repeated utterance of "I don't know what you're talking about" everything from the heartbreaking possible onset of senility to a bone chilling challenge to anyone who dares question her sincerity. You're never quite sure how conscious her denial of the problems in her life is, and it makes for a fascinating character study. Yet for all she does right, Lange sometimes feels out of place; you get the feeling her Mary would work even better in a production where the other actors matched her particular style of emotionally volatile acting, rather than the more measured and stately performances favored by her current costars.

As the Tyrones' two sons, both Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr. are exceptional. As the elder son, Shannon is mesmerizing, expertly forging all of the character's conflicting impulses into one multifaceted gem of a performance. Shannon's Jimmy is the most self-aware of the bunch, but also the most vindictive, purposefully agitating the rest of the family by continually bringing up their hurtful past. There's a twinkle of joy in Shannon's eyes when he gets a rise out of one of the other characters, and yet his repeated apologies are heartfelt and his own self-loathing always readily apparent. As the younger son Edmund, Gallagher, Jr. nails the character's contradictory desire to be treated as a man and need for the extra attention granted him by virtue of being the family baby. He also makes for the most interesting foil to Lange, the only one who seems to really see her even as she continually lies to herself about his ongoing medical problems.

Director Jonathan Kent makes a few choices that actively undermine his cast, including staging the play so that an unnecessarily large amount of dialogue is delivered upstage. It robs the audience of the chance to see the actors' expressive faces, and occurs enough that it becomes difficult to fully empathize with them (Lange in particular spends a lot of time speaking upstage). Also, while no one has ever accused Long Day's Journey Into Night of being a short play, Kent's decision to provide only one intermission during the play's four hour runtime turns it into an endurance test for even the most devout O'Neill fans. The last of the four acts suffers the most from this decision, with several brilliantly subtle bits of acting competing against the increasing restlessness of the audience, and the heartbreak of Lange's final monologue undercut by the relief of finally getting a break.

Overall, this Journey is admirably executed but rarely excites, making it difficult to recommend but also hard to completely dismiss. O'Neill's play is a masterwork of rare skill, infinitely complex despite its relatively straightforward setup, and something that reveals new facets of meaning on every viewing. It is something that should be experienced by every theatre lover at some point in their lives, but it would be a shame if those unfamiliar with the work mistook the flaws in this production as flaws with the play in general. Audience enjoyment will be directly tied to how interested you are in seeing these specific actors tackle these specific roles, but those who have seen multiple productions of the play probably won't find much to distinguish this revival from the rest.

1 comment:

  1. You should check out Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford opposite Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in FX's new miniseries Feud: Bette And Joan.