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Mourning Becomes Electra

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mourning Becomes Electra
Jena Malone and Lili Taylor.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Add to Lavinia Mannon’s mounting list of identity crises a new and particularly shameful one: She’s not as youthful as her mother, Christine. After all, she vamps about her New England manse with the purposeful stride of a young nymphet advertising that she’s ripe and ready for plucking, while Lavinia broods about with the weight of her musty upbringing and her self-defining defeatedness on her toothpick-thin shoulders. Doesn’t mother know what’s at stake? And can a Lavinia obsessed with nothing other than these questions function as the fulcrum for a year of positively Hellenic madness?

If so, don’t expect to discover convincing connections to emerge from Jena Malone, who’s barreling through the marathon role of the scheming, steaming Lavinia (aka Vinnie) in The New Group’s new revival of Mourning Becomes Electra. Eugene O’Neill’s majestic adaptation of The Oresteia, which reenvisions the sweeping dissection of the House of Atreus as a tumultuous tour through the tremor-tossed post-Civil War North, can barely be contained by Scott Elliott’s watchable but gassy production at the Acorn Theatre. But Malone barely registers as the towering cog responsible for turning a dozen wheels.

The interplay between Vinnie and Christine is a chief reason why. For Vinnie, the Mannons’ blood and history have been so tainted that she’s not the next generation, but the last one. She pins the blame for all of this on Christine (Lili Taylor), who’s astonishingly free with her love and hate, and hardly blameless in ravaging the family while her husband Ezra (Mark Blum) and son Orin (Joseph Cross) were off fighting for the Union. Yet deep down, Malone convinces you not that Christine disgusts Vinnie, but that she intrigues her, living the depraved life the future-and-past-minded Vinnie has denied herself.

Taylor, who looks at most four years older than Malone (and even that’s pushing it), has infused Christine with nothing but roughed-up individualism, while Malone’s Vinnie is so chatteringly insecure that she defines herself strictly by what everyone else thinks of her. These characterizations are exactly the opposite of what’s needed to propel O’Neill’s self-contained trilogy from the deceptively trite to the devastating, charting the one-time rise and permanent fall of the Great American Name.

For all this to work - and to provide sufficient fuel for four and a quarter hours of playing time - Vinnie must be as active and as present a player in her own destruction as she appears to be in her preservation. Conveying no sense of occasion or status beyond her own selfish sphere, Malone seems to have been spending her free time palling around with Mary-Louise Parker’s Hedda Gabler. But Vinnie should not be a 19th-century poster girl for personal disaffection. Forsaking her mother and loving her father, then conspiring to destroy her mother’s illicit lover and subsequently her whole life, and finally isolating herself among the very ghosts she’s created, she’s about as complicated and tragic a figure as ever stalked Athens’s Theatre of Dionysus. Her life is more than the simple Sunday-afternoon tiff with mummy that Malone embodies.

Most of Elliott’s production is similarly shallow, falling into the traps that O’Neill unknowingly set when he wrote the play in 1931. He pillaged Sigmund Freud as readily as he did Aeschylus in creating Vinnie and those who surround her, so any failure to subscribe to those theories - in whole or in part - makes grasping the work’s intricacies an eye-crossing challenge. But O’Neill’s timeliness has not dated across 77 years as quickly Elliott’s ruthless rethinking already has.

Mourning Becomes Electra
Jena Malone and Anson Mount.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Pacing each of the component plays (which are separated by intermissions) with hardly a pause for breath, Elliott has allowed no sense of the depth of the Mannons’ woes, and even less of a concern with those who enable Vinnie and Christine’s various horrors. Peter and Hazel Niles, the brother and sister who are romantically intertwined with Vinnie and Orin, are played by Patrick Mapel and Phoebe Strole as the crazy neighbors next door, and register more as surface-level contributors to Vinnie’s woes than they do the very keys to understanding her single-minded psychoses. And Anson Mount plays Adam Brant as far too flighty and inconclusive to make him believable as the man who instigates the Mannons’ downfall by romancing both mother and daughter.

Everything only holds together in the first third, “Homecoming,” which slightly downplays Vinnie in favor of Christine and Ezra. Blum gives the battered war hero a hefty dose of brittle sympathy, making him equal parts kindly and maddening: You can understand why Vinnie is drawn to him and why Christine is repulsed. Taylor, generally lacking the secretive and stately abandon that might justify Christine’s unjustifiable sin, is icily brilliant in traversing the fires of Christine’s hatred for Ezra, on which everything else ultimately turns.

Christine’s revenge scene, however, is but a tiny slice of a mammoth evening; the play needs much more. This includes a more persuasive and decisive Orin; Cross is more whiningly immature than he is hardened and cracked by what he witnessed on the battlefield. A better physical production would also clarify the scope of the action: Derek McLane’s go-everywhere set draws but shaky distinctions between indoors and the outdoors, and is poorly complemented by Jason Lyons’s generic mood lighting. The look, complete with period portico upstage center, is obviously intended to recall classical stagecraft, but it’s not enough.

There’s simply too much here to be effectively rendered in such thin, approximate strokes. A play of this length and stature demands a treatment that realizes, respects, and perhaps even fears the power of its sprawling script. But just as Malone resembles a stick figure finger-painted on a distant three-dimensional backdrop, so does most everything else about this Mourning Becomes Electra exist on a different plane from the play itself. The words and emotions are unquestionably American, but too many of the people involved make it seem like it’s all Greek to them.


Mourning Becomes Electra
Through April 18
The New Group @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Performances: Mon 7:00 pm, Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 7:00 pm, Th 7:00 pm, Fri 7:00 pm, Sat Noon, Sat 7:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral