Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 9, 2007
The Old Vic Theatre Company production of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene OíNeill. 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 OíHare.
Donít waste too much time pondering what caused it, though. The revival of Eugene OíNeillís A Moon for the Misbegotten, which uses this Bob Crowley design as its set, offers few clues. Itís 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, youíll be so parched and longing for answers by the time the evening ends that you may feel as though youíre 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 Londonís 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 OíNeillís 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 theyíre not allowed to ride OíNeillís 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, youíre not also witnessing the final sunset for both their lives that you must if youíre to accept that Eveís transformation is really comparable to Jimís.
That scene and the heartbreaking coda that follows are elegiac in the extreme, OíNeillís frustrated farewell to the real-life brother that inspired Jim. The character is, of course, the same gadabout boy from Long Dayís 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 Jodieís purity (or absence thereof) become the final, fatal tangling in a heart thatís trying to forget how to love. But though he played Jim in Long Dayís 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, heís tormented by none of the elegant desperation befitting Jimís last days, the hopes that have become in the wake of his motherís death the very bourbon heís planning to use to drink himself to death. Jimís 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 canít make believable Josieís crucial journey from plaything to girl to woman. You see each waypoint, but not how Jimís influence transports her from one to the next. That Best does not match Josieís description within the play doesnít help: She conveys in voice and attitude Josieís mannish, farm-grown nature, but a simple look at her as decked out in Lynette Mauroís homespun-alluring costumes proves sheís all woman, in utter control of her femininity. Thatís 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 Spaceyís worldly Jim and Bestís 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. Itís 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.
Itís not, though, a viable expression of one of Moonís core themes, that ďlove is a wonderful, mad inspiration.Ē 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. Thatís necessary for a world that, by playís 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.