'Long Day's Journey Into Night': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'
A bruising family affair.
6/26/2016

Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. play the tortured souls of the Tyrone family in Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical magnum opus.

One of the more surprising aspects of the latest Broadway revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night, a play defined by its malignant sorrow, is the nervous laughter that often ripples through the audience. Eugene O'Neill's intimate epic, first produced in 1956, three years after his death, lasers in on the gloomy insularity of characters representing the playwright's own unhappy family. But Jonathan Kent's starry production, led by a transfixing Jessica Lange, also invites us to see reflections of our own closest relationships in the haunted Tyrones — bound by love and hatred, need and rejection, co-dependence and isolation in an agonizing present tormented by the long reach of the past.

Much of the acrid humor that keeps bubbling up comes from Michael Shannon's dangerously unpredictable Jamie Tyrone, the unrepentantly cynical eldest son, a failed actor turned dissolute Broadway loafer. But the heat-seeking center of the production is Lange's morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, a role she played previously in London 16 years ago.

An edge-of-insanity electrical current runs through much of Lange's work, from her screen portrayals of Frances Farmer or the unhinged wife in Blue Sky through her association with the cracked heroines of Tennessee Williams to her career resurgence as the dotty Big Edie in Grey Gardens and the high priestess of witchy camp in the American Horror Story anthology (series creator Ryan Murphy is an associate producer here). It's that attraction to madness that gives this performance such mesmerizing authority.

Kent presents the play at three hours and 45 minutes with just one intermission, but punctuates the original four acts by sending a railed curtain sailing across the stage like a ghost ship. Unlike the memorable 2003 Broadway revival, in which a spectral Vanessa Redgrave seared her own indelible imprint onto the role of Mary, this production unfolds not in an oppressive mausoleum of dark wood and enveloping shadow. Instead, Tom Pye's set depicts the Tyrones' summer house in a New England harbor town as a flaking, faded place first seen bleached by the morning sun. (Natasha Katz did the expertly modulated lighting.) Only gradually do its large windows become choked with the rolling fog that symbolizes the family's suffocating entrapment in a clouded history.

The unblinking light of the early scenes serves to heighten the anxiety as the patriarch, veteran stage actor James (Gabriel Byrne), and his sons Jamie and Edmund (John Gallagher Jr.) keep a hawk-eyed watch on Mary for signs of the drug use that prompted her recent spell in a sanatorium. Byrne's James seems to be working hard to convince himself that all is well with his wife, who also appears to be straining to maintain her veneer of poise as they laugh and flirt and banter. It's clear that the couple's physical attraction remains strong even after 35 years of marriage. But the precariousness of her equilibrium is evident from the start, also in her agitated insistence that Edmund's lingering illness is merely a summer cold.

There's poignancy in the way Byrne contrasts James' doting attention for Mary with his extreme prickliness toward his sons, particularly the rudderless Jamie, who spends his nights boozing and whoring. Jamie is the most blunt and unfiltered of them. He says it's useless to fool his mother about Edmund's likely diagnosis of consumption, and he's the first to confront Mary directly when it becomes clear she's back on the morphine.

Michael Shannon

Structured like a symphony with a dominant recurring motif, the drama uses repetition to inch under the skin of the family and expose their needling obsessions, primarily their habit of hurling and absorbing blame. The derisive impatience of Shannon's Jamie with his father's endless harangues is slyly amusing. But both sons toss back accusations that their father's tightwad nature is the cause of their mother's addiction, since he sent her to a cheap hotel quack for treatment following Edmund's birth.

Mary's charges are equally corrosive, from the suggestion that Jamie caused the death of a middle son to her frequent lament that James has denied her a home by having her accompany him on tour in filthy trains and second-rate hotels, refusing to spend money on their shabby summer place. The special torture James reserves for himself carries its own sting, deluding himself after a few whiskeys that he could have been a great Shakespearean actor if he hadn’t become forever associated with a hoary melodrama. O'Neill's portrait of his own actor father is more steeped in bitterness than any other, and Byrne assumes that burden with a maudlin yet affecting gravitas that becomes more evident as the destructive cycle stretches on into night. The pathetic dishonesty beneath James' self-inflated pride is quite moving.

Rounding out the ensemble and also helping to coax out the unexpected humor in this production, Colby Minifie brings a cheeky spark to the maid Cathleen. The one disappointment in the cast is Gallagher as the playwright's stand-in. The actor has done superb stage work in both plays (Rabbit Hole, Port Authority) and musicals (Spring Awakening, American Idiot). But his performance here feels jarringly wrong at every step — too hearty for someone whose health is falling apart, and too contemporary for 1912, with a blank, monotonal delivery that flattens the melancholy music of the dialogue. This is problematic in a character with a natural gift for poetry. Edmund's Act IV speech outlining the cherished memories of his time at sea should be transporting, lifting us back to the years when he was happiest. Here it becomes a wearying drone, exposing the purple heaviness in O'Neill's writing.

That makes the jolt of crude vitality all the more welcome when Shannon's Jamie staggers in after midnight, so smashed he can barely stand. His account of having chosen the unpopular "Fat Violet" at the local brothel that night because he felt sorry for her is both droll and strangely sad. Even more riveting is his warning confession to Edmund that the love and protectiveness he feels toward his brother has always been countered by rivalry, by a need to damage him rooted in his own numb self-hatred.

Shannon is a fascinating stage beast, as magnetic as he is onscreen, with an expressiveness that extends from his brooding facial features to his rangy body and large, swatting hands. His Jamie is funny in his sourness but also deeply angry and broken beyond repair. Perhaps for that reason he seems the closest to Mary's wavelength. Shannon puts such a unique spin on so much of his dialogue that the play's final act takes on invigorating new life, cementing the hopelessly knotted tangle of resentment and devotion that ties this family together. The cruelty with which Jamie greets his doped-up mother's return downstairs in the middle of the night ("The mad scene. Enter Ophelia!") is breathtaking.

But the production belongs to Lange, if only for the unsettling spell of her final monologue, when she winds back the years in her head to become a ghost of the convent school girl she once was, still untouched by life. Even when Mary is offstage, thumping around in the attic searching for her wedding gown, she's a vivid presence in the apprehensive glances that her family cast at the ceiling and staircase. Lange does remarkable things with her voice, chirping away in the early scenes with almost manic concentration to cover her need for a fix, or diving down a full octave to contemplate her arthritic hands with a gravelly chill: "How ugly they are. Who'd ever believe they were once beautiful?"

A conflicted creature of wild inconsistencies, Mary craves the invisibility of the fog but at the same time dreads its aloneness. "The hardest thing to take is the blank wall she builds around her," says Edmund. Lange inhabits those unearthly spaces with fragility but also with the fierce narcissism and cunning of the addict, acknowledging her crippling weakness only to deny it angrily moments later, or to flip the guilt back onto her family as they look on, heartsick. Her final words are among the most famous closing lines in American drama: "Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time." Lange's Mary has become oblivious to her husband and sons by then, and yet oddly sober, projecting a clarity that cuts like a knife.

Venue: American Airlines Theater, New York
Cast: Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon, John Gallagher Jr., Colby Minifie
Director: Jonathan Kent
Playwright: Eugene O'Neill
Set designer: Tom Pye
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Clive Goodwin
Fight director: J. David Brimmer
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with Ryan Murphy

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