Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 9, 2007
The Old Vic Theatre Company production of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Howard Davies. Set design by Bob Crowley. Costume design by Lynette Mauro. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Sound design by Christopher Shutt. Sound system design by T. Richard Fitzgerald & Carl Casella. Original music by Dominic Muldowney. Starring Eve Best and Kevin Spacey. Also starring Colm Meaney with Billy Carter and Eugene O'Hare.
Don't waste too much time pondering what caused it, though. The revival of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, which uses this Bob Crowley design as its set, offers few clues. It's not, however, questions of the destruction of the land that most haunt the production at the Brooks Atkinson, but rather questions of the soul.
On that score, you'll be so parched and longing for answers by the time the evening ends that you may feel as though you're in no better condition than the Connecticut countryside represented onstage. For despite starring American Oscar winner Kevin Spacey and an estimable British actress named Eve Best, this production - which originated at London's Old Vic Theatre Company (where Spacey serves as artistic director) - has a solid enough grasp of Earth and its curious inhabitants but little ability to turn its gaze toward the stars.
Director Howard Davies has attempted to strip this Moon of all its ties to the poetic realism that was always O'Neill's trademark. This is a rather radical reexamination, but perhaps a worthy one to bring to a city that just saw a Broadway revival seven years ago (starring Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne), and still tends to speak in hushed tones of the revelatory 1973 production starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. And there are times this approach proves successful, leaving you experiencing much of the visceral pull between Josie Hogan (Best) and Jim Tyrone (Spacey) as they carry their mating-dance tug-of-war to loser-takes-all totality.
But people as small as these two, stumbling through a vast world of duplicity and mask-wearing, are too easily lost when they're not allowed to ride O'Neill's text to its outermost emotional conclusions. As you watch their relationship too sensibly develop over the course of an unsteady evening beneath that unforgiving moon, you're not also witnessing the final sunset for both their lives that you must if you're to accept that Eve's transformation is really comparable to Jim's.
That scene and the heartbreaking coda that follows are elegiac in the extreme, O'Neill's frustrated farewell to the real-life brother that inspired Jim. The character is, of course, the same gadabout boy from Long Day's Journey Into Night, 12 years older but not noticeably wiser. He still fancies himself a Broadway playboy, one who conducts all his deals - whether dalliances with prostitutes or services as the owner of the property Josie and her father (Colm Meaney) hope to call their permanent home - with the same devilish disregard his father chided him about once upon a time.
Spacey expertly plays the devoted friend and conflicted lover, whose perception and knowledge of Jodie's purity (or absence thereof) become the final, fatal tangling in a heart that's trying to forget how to love. But though he played Jim in Long Day's Journey on Broadway in 1986 (opposite Jack Lemmon), he now projects himself more like a moody stage-door Johnny than a drunken matinee idol of surpassingly modest skills. Worse, he's tormented by none of the elegant desperation befitting Jim's last days, the hopes that have become in the wake of his mother's death the very bourbon he's planning to use to drink himself to death. Jim's eventual disintegration does not sensibly follow from the thoroughly together Everyman Spacey embodies earlier on.
But without an above-the-fray Jim to captivate her, Best can't make believable Josie's crucial journey from plaything to girl to woman. You see each waypoint, but not how Jim's influence transports her from one to the next. That Best does not match Josie's description within the play doesn't help: She conveys in voice and attitude Josie's mannish, farm-grown nature, but a simple look at her as decked out in Lynette Mauro's homespun-alluring costumes proves she's all woman, in utter control of her femininity. That's not right for a woman routinely compared to a hog.
Meaney looks far too young to play her father, but finds all the right devious joviality and canny business sense to convince as a new breed of 20th century frontiersman. With a rough-hewn air and the waveringly subtle hint of an Irish brogue caught in his voice, he so contrasts with both Spacey's worldly Jim and Best's Earth Daughter Josie that when the three share the stage together, you see a startlingly complete (and even comforting) portrait of 1923 family in all its unusually fractured glory.
Here and only here, the grounded qualities of all three performers work in their favor to strengthen the image of a unit that only functions when correctly assembled. It's a fascinating concept that receives its full due as the evening unfolds and the chips fall into messy stacks that suggest the demise of any romantic relationship ripples beyond just the two central intimates.
It's not, though, a viable expression of one of Moon's core themes, that "love is a wonderful, mad inspiration." This production has the love and the mad down pat, but is too seldom inspired enough to join them together to show all the myriad ways in which anguish distorts and distends matters of the heart. That's necessary for a world that, by play's end, must abstractly look exactly as this production does at the beginning: a burned-out shell populated by the ghosts of hopes both nurtured and dashed.