It can be a challenge, making the contemporary case for Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s as long as its title warns, for one thing. It’s repetitious and maudlin and dated; attempts to update it only make it a greater slog. I’d seen three of the five previous Broadway productions of the play; each had its attributes, none adding up an entirely successful evening, until now. The revival that opened tonight at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre is, in a word, transfixing.
It may sound like no fun at all to spend nearly four hours with the dope-and-booze-befogged Tyrone family, but by the time this journey was done, I was completely given over to the dark and dangerous spell of O’Neill’s masterpiece. It was as though I was seeing it for the first time.
This would have been impossible without one of the rarest convergences on Broadway: an all-star cast and director who work as well on stage as they promised on paper. Such ventures hardly ever pay off: The expectations are too high, the egos too strong, the acting styles too disparate. That’s not the case here, director Jonathan Kent reprising an earlier staging with as fine a quartet in the leading roles as one could hope for: Gabriel Byrne as James Tyrone, the classical actor who abandoned a serious career in exchange for the matinee-idol role that has made him wealthy over the course of a life on the road; Jessica Lange as his wife Mary, the one-time beauty gone to ruin by years spent following her husband from this backwater to the next; the incomparable Michael Shannon as James Jr., Jamie, the dissolute son whose options have been destroyed by years of drinking and whoring and who, at 34, is on a slow train to oblivion; and John Gallagher Jr. as Jamie’s brother Edmund, a decade younger and dying of consumption, as tuberculosis was called in 1912.
The play is set at the modest Tyrone summer home on the Connecticut shore (a clean an uncluttered design by Tom Pye), a few weeks after Mary’s return from her latest attempt to shake her addiction to morphine. The family is waiting for the results of tests that will confirm Edmund’s illness, which is a death sentence. The air is soon electric with verbal thrusts and parries, as each of these four unleashes recriminations followed inevitably by abject demands for forgiveness. It’s an emotional tennis game that could drive you mad; it certainly has driven the Tyrones mad, but they’ve been at it for years. I can sympathize with the complaint of theater goers unused to a work that insists we join the trance-inducing rhythms that give the work its growing power, who hear only Mary mourning the loss of a child and the long-faded dream of a real home. Or James insisting that he’s not a tightwad willing to sacrifice Edmund’s hope for a place at a cheap horror-house state-run sanatorium, even as he unscrews the light bulbs above the dining room table to save a few cents on the electric bill.
I’ve singled out Shannon for first praise because this actor, who has fast become the leading man of a generation through well-chosen roles on stage and in film (Revolutionary Road, 99 Homes, Elvis & Nixon) and television (Boardwalk Empire), enters the play in silence, through gazing eyes that pierce the thick air no less sharply than the fog horn that sounds nearby. In a role that begs for mawkish showboating, Shannon brings quiet sorrow. His final-act scenes with his brother and his father are as harrowing as any I’ve ever witnessed.
Those require a James and an Edmund equal to the task. Byrne (HBO’s In Treatment, the new Louder Than Bombs) and Gallagher (Broadway’s Jerusalem, 10 Cloverfield Lane) are right there, the former also pulling in the reins until James finally can rage against himself with an honesty previously denied, and the latter almost heartbreaking in his resignation to his fate.
And then there’s Lange. Mary, to whom the play is a testament but a mountain as well, regularly ascends the stairway to the “spare room” for a fix that’s never quite enough to allay her pain, nor enough to secure the illusion of happiness. Lange has the gift of Jane Greenwood’s costumes — by turns diaphanous as light or opaque as armor — and Natasha Katz’s exquisite lighting. She also has a delightful foil in Colby Minifie’s animated Cathleen, the maid.
Over a mostly spectacular career, the two-time Oscar winner, who won the Olivier Award for this role, has made psychological complexity and transparency her hallmark, from the plays of O’Neill and Tennessee Williams to films including Frances, Cape Fear, Music Box and Country to FX’s American Horror Story. With Lange leading the way, Mary begins this Journey a tragic figure and concludes it a ghost who will haunt our dreams, for a time.
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