Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Engrossing McCarter Production of O'Neill's
A Moon for the Misbegotten

Also see Bob's review of All My Sons

Kathleen McNenny and Andrew McCarthy
Although a work of fiction, Eugene O'Neill's last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, is a companion piece to his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night. Clearly not fictional is the character of James Tyrone, the alter ego for O'Neill's weak, older brother Jamie in both plays. Moon is O'Neill's heartfelt elegy for him.

The setting is the tumble-down Connecticut farmhouse of tenant farmer Phil Hogan (Jack Willis). It is early September, 1923, and the play's events transpire between noon and sunrise the following morning. Hogan is a domineering bully of a father. As the play begins, his son Mike (Peter Scanavino) is in the process of escaping his father's domination by sneaking off the farm with the help of his tough, strong, giant of a sister, Josie (Kathleen McNenny). Mike's two older brothers have long ago made similar escapes. Unlike her brothers, Jose is a match and more for their father.

Josie, strong, intimidating and saltily sharp tongued, loves their landlord, James Tyrone, Jr. (Andrew McCarthy), who has inherited the farm from his parents. James is a failed actor and dissolute alcoholic wastrel in perpetual mourning for his dead mother. Dead inside, James is as addicted to New York theatre district "tarts" as he is repulsed by the nature of his empty relationships with them. Incapable of either giving or accepting love, his strong feelings for Josie only add to his pain and misery.

Afraid that James is going to sell their farm to a very rich owner of an abutting estate who would toss him out, Hogan convinces Josie to seduce James into signing the farm over to them. Yet, this night, Josie will reach out to try to save James, no matter how overwhelming the odds against her success.

Kathleen McNenny integrates Josie's strength and indomitability with her sadness and despair with ease and grace. Andrew McCarthy captures much of the haunted quality of James Tyrone. Their essentially naturalist performances contribute greatly to the accessibility and enjoyment of the play. However, there are depths of despair in these roles that McNenny and McCarthy never plumb. It is possible to find McNenny too attractive and not physically big enough for Josie. This may well be because of the indelible memory of the imposing Colleen Dewhurst in the role. However, I would point out that Dewhurst played Josie in the second NY revival of Moon, and that the role was played by Wendy Hiller in the original New York production. While Josie must be strong, a careful reading of the script allows her a certain, not clearly delineated level of attractiveness. Physically weak, Josie must not appear, and McNenny does not so appear here. Speaking of indelible performances, Jason Robards played James Tyrone, Jr. opposite Dewhurst.

Jack Willis plays Phil Hogan in an ingratiating manner which suggests that Phil's mean and fearsome nature is mostly bluster. Jeremiah Wiggins as the rich neighbor and Peter Scanavino as the departing Hogan son contribute smooth turns.

Under Gary Griffin's direction, this production is more likeable than despairing despite the overriding bleakness of O'Neill's vision. Griffin stages at a moderate pace which lets the character defining, often richly humorous dialogue breathe. Although the production is certainly not definitive, it will allow easier access to the play for some audiences.

Eugene Lee, who designed the set for the 2000 Goodman Theatre production (which played on Broadway), has designed a large multilevel set of a ruin of a house and its surrounding property. The set is built out into the auditorium, and the seating has been reconfigured to allow a few rows of seats to be placed on either side of the forward extension, and facing it. This setting is most evocative, and brings Moon closer to the audience in the moderately sized Berlind Theatre. The excellent period costumes by Jess Goldstein, and the seamless, effective lighting by Jane Cox nicely complete the evening's effectively visual design work.

On the day that A Moon for the Misbegotten is set, O'Neill's brother Jamie lay hopelessly ill in a sanitarium, having effectively drunk himself to death after the death of their mother. Finally, with his deeply heartfelt last play, O'Neill found an eloquent path to comprehending and accepting his brother's need to die.

A Moon for the Misbegotten continues performances (Tues.-Thurs. 7:30 pm/Friday. & Sat. 8 pm/ Matinees Sat. 3pm/Sun.2pm) through February 19, 2006 at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540, Box Office: 609-258-2787; online

A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Gary Griffin
Cast (in order of appearance)

Josie Hogan…………..Kathleen McNenny
Mike Hogan…………….Peter Scanavinio
Phil Hogan………………………Jack Willis
James Tyrone, Jr……...Andrew McCarthy
T. Stedman Harder……..Jeremiah Wiggins

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- Bob Rendell

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