Richard Eyre’s staging of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring an ideally matched Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, unfolds on a summer home set that fuses the transparent with the caged, a fitting backdrop to the scathing autobiographical honesty and desolation of the playwright’s masterpiece.
The Bristol Old Vic production, in a limited run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music opening tonight and closing May 27, stars Irons as the skinflint paterfamilias James Tyrone and Manville as his morphine-addicted wife Mary, the fictional representatives of O’Neill’s real-life parents and core of the play that Eyre has called the saddest ever written.
Manville, especially, brings that heartbroken quality to the fore in a wrenching performance. Her Mary, ever trying and always failing to hide her renewed addiction from the family she both loves and blames, is an exposed nerve, a flibbertigibbet compelled by dope, rage and guilt to reveal her deepest secrets even as she tries so hard to bury them.
The oft-revived play – now sharing New York with O’Neill’s rival masterpiece The Iceman Cometh, also starring a film heavyweight in Denzel Washington – reveals secrets of its own, even to audiences all too familiar with the ins and outs of its plot.
Transpiring over the course of a summer’s day and night in the O’Neills’ – I mean, the Tyrones’ – Connecticut summer home, the play unburies the regrets, recriminations and doom of James, the tyrannical, tight-fisted stage ham who secretly believes himself a sell-out for abandoning Shakespeare to the lightweight commercial fare that’s brought a career of easy money; Mary, the well-bred (or so she remembers) former convent girl whose marriage to James brought an unexpected life of cheap hotels and cheaper doctors all too willing to prescribe the “poison” that became her only retreat; and their sons Jamie (Rory Keenan), a dissolute Broadway wastrel ever compelled to “wise up” his younger, poetic brother Edmund (Matthew Beard) on the faults of the world and, more specifically and damaging, the failings of James and Mary.
The play takes place on the day in 1912 that Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, is diagnosed with consumption, dreadful news, already suspected, that serves to bring out and sharpen the Tyrones’ antipathies and aguish, particularly for Mary, who blames herself – and James, and Jamie – for Edmund’s delicate condition and life’s cruel exploitation of it. A two-month (maybe) break in her longtime addiction comes to an end, turning Mary back into the “mad ghost” that haunts the home and family with her nostalgic reveries and acidic accusations.
The production’s set, designed (as are the unerring shabby summer-chic costumes) by Rob Howell, has made the trek from London to Brooklyn in faultless style, taking up residence in BAM’s gloriously aged and renovated 1904-era Harvey Theater. The Tyrones’ summer beachside home consists of the realistic (well-stocked bookshelves, tired, second-rate furniture) and the metaphorical: Translucent window-like walls underscore raw, emotional exposure, and the caged staircase that seems a constant draw on Mary’s attention – and that leads to her drug stash – is the very jail of addiction.
Manville, an Oscar nominee this year for Phantom Thread, gets to the core of this self-admitted “dope fiend” character in every nervous, craving jitter and each relaxed sprawl of a recent fix, her performance a mesmerizing symphony of rambling, barely disguised resentments and outbursts of flashing anger.
Irons matches her step-by-step, his terrific portrayal of James moving sure-footedly from the bombast of a lifelong blowhard to the quiet revelations of the sporadically guilt-ridden.
Beard (The Riot Club, The Imitation Game), too, manages the play’s quicksilver mood shifts, and steers clear of the brooding, off-putting self-pity occasionally brought to Edmund by other actors in the role.
In this production, only Keenan, as the drunken, brothel-going elder brother, falls short, the Peaky Blinders actor adopting pinched, theatrical wise-guy affectations that sound like Richard Dreyfus in The Goodbye Girl or Johnny Carson doing Art Fern. Even Jamie’s soul-baring display of selflessness late in the play is undone by Keenan’s showboating alligator tears, a lapse that might do even more damage were it not for Manville’s come-to-the-rescue reading of Mary’s gorgeous soliloquy that ends Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Not even a loud, inexcusable hack from the audience during the reviewed performance (“I fell in love with James Tyrone” [COUGH] “and was so happy for time…”) could break Manville’s concentration, or her spell.