By the end of the Broadway revival of Long Days Journey Into Night two years ago, when Jessica Lange as mother Mary Tyrone rejoins her family, she is an ethereal ghost, her mind and body numbed by the morphine to which she is addicted. Now, at the same moment on stage in Brooklyn, Lesley Manville’s Mary practically does a jig. Hers is one of the unusually physical performances in the Bristol Old Vic production of Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month. Eugene O’Neill’s domestic dance feels like a literal dance at times in this version directed by Sir Richard Eyre in a cast led by Jeremy Irons. The four members of the Tyrone family, stand-ins for O’Neill’s own, jostle each other violently; pounce and push, hug and jab; raise their arms in the air in drunken triumph; stretch their bodies oddly, as if the play’s long running time has caused a few cricks.
More production photographs at NewYorkTheater.me
This choreography is not all that differs from what New York theatergoers and American moviegoers are used to. Irons comes off as a refined and patrician James Tyrone, the promising Shakespearean actor who gave it up to make money performing the same crowd-pleasing melodrama over and over. Other actors routinely portray Tyrone as a ham and a peasant. Irons’ Tyrone is a cultivated matinee idol, aging but still in possession of his svelte figure, precise diction and resonant voice. It would be hard to discern the character’s “Irish farmer forebears,” as O’Neill described it, either in Irons’ carriage nor in the outfits he wears. O’Neill instructs Tyrone’s clothing to be “commonplace shabby” (because Tyrone is too much a cheapskate to wear anything else) but costume designer Rob Howell dresses Irons in tweedy couture, beige or all-white, as well as an elegant gold dressing robe, and even an ascot.
Howell also designed this production’s set, which places the bookcase and old-fashioned summer cottage furniture against a soaring geometric pattern of glass walls and a skylight. It looks like a glass atrium for the kind of building that Eero Saarinen might have designed in the 1960s, but would not exist in 1912 in New London, Connecticut, which is where and when the play takes place. (O’Neill’s model for the home in the play was O’Neill’s childhood home, a seaside cottage that is now a national landmark and a museum .) I guess all that modernist glass is meant as a visual metaphor for something (people throwing stones shouldn’t live in glass houses?)
The distinctive touches of the production, some at variance with the playwright’s conception, don’t wind up seriously detracting from what most matters about Long Day’s Journey into Night. In the Bristol Old Vic’s version as in every other I’ve seen, the play is a powerful and insightful tragedy that painfully reveals, over the course of a single day, the specific regrets, disappointments and self-loathing of a damaged family who bicker and blame and love one another in equal measure.
Amid our heightened awareness of opioid addiction, Manville’s more hyperactive, jittery Mary feels more realistic than the usual dainty, otherworldly take on the character. Rory Keenan as older brother Jamie is a quintessentially ugly drunk, Matthew Beard as younger brother Edmund (and O’Neill’s version of himself as a young tubercular man) is a keeling drunk; his movement is sometimes weirdly balletic as he stumbles about. For all his unassailable elegance, Irons convinces us as the day darkens that he is a broken man, his face collapsing into varying expressions of helplessness as he watches Mary once more descend into madness. That final monologue of Mary’s is devastating. “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy…for a time.” Its last line left me in tears.
That was not, I’ll confess, the reaction I had during every minute of this production’s 200 (which is a slightly shorter running time than usual.) What detracts from this production for me, or at least distracts me from it, is the timing.
When the play was first produced on Broadway in 1956, 15 years after O’Neill wrote it and three years after his death, the critic Brooks Atkinson declared that it singlehandedly had given American theater “size and stature.” I noted in my review of the fifth Broadway revival that, 60 years later, it was still near the top of anybody’s list of greatest American plays
This is certainly still true, but for me the production at BAM suffers for coming just two years after that Broadway production starring Jessica Lange, and just two weeks after the opening of The Iceman Cometh with Denzel Washington (running time: 230 minutes.) I think I’ve learned a personal lesson: One must space out one’s attendance at O’Neill epics, or one is in danger of spacing out during them.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is on stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217) through May 27, 2018.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Written by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Sir Richard Eyre, set and costume design by Rob Howell, lighting design by Peter Mumford, sound design by John Leonard. Featuring Jeremy Irons as James Tyrone, Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone, Matthew Beard as Edmund, Rory Keenan as Jamie. Jessica Regan as Cathleen. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.