Another catch-up review, this one from mid-May.
Going to the theater is often instructive for me, even—maybe especially—when a production veers off course.
On paper, the Long Day’s Journey into Night that arrived at BAM via the Bristol Old Vic could hardly have been more blue-chip. Richard Eyre, who directed, is a five-time Olivier Award winner with a substantial career on both sides of the pond, including running London’s National Theatre for a decade. Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville are, if anything, even more distinguished, and they seemed ideally cast as James and Mary, two of modern drama’s meatiest and most challenging roles.
What could go wrong?
Quite a lot, actually, starting with the scenic design (by Rob Howell, another heavy-hitter, whose work includes Matilda the Musical).
First, though, a little context. Long Day is based on reality, with the play’s Tyrone family standing in for the Real O’Neills. Eugene is represented here as Edmund, the younger of two sons; his older brother is Jamie. Another son, who died in early childhood, is often mentioned, and rather strangely is given the name “Eugene.” In fact, there was an “Edmond O’Neill”—a child who died at age two. In a poignant—or, depending on your perspective, morbid—gesture, the playwright thus assigns his theatrical doppelganger a kind of ghost status. The parent characters, James and Mary Tyrone, likewise share the same names as their actual counterparts, although O’Neill’s mother was known as “Ella” throughout her life.
Just as Long Day’s characters are real, so is its setting: the O’Neill’s summer home in New London, Connecticut, which is now known as “Monte Cristo Cottage.” (Earlier this year, a production of the play was staged in situ.)
So, we know what that real house looked like, though of course at the same time, this is a theatrical representation. Like the rest of the play, it’s a mesh of reality, memory, and poetic license—a hugely important metaphor in the storytelling, perhaps especially through the recurrent motif of enveloping fog that rolls in and out.
In short, the way all this is depicted in any given production lays the foundation for that production’s conceptual framework and style.
Eyre and Howell do a full court press in terms of the coastal setting, with an angled glass wall revealing a constantly shifting landscape of sea and sky, looming above a scantily furnished living space.
It’s a visually arresting panorama that promises an interesting symbolist take, but it quickly wears out its welcome. The expansiveness of the outdoors dwarfs the human-scale drama that should be in the foreground. The view also evokes a modern and very luxurious vacation home, at odds with the way the Tyrone’s describe their own place—basically as the shabbiest and least grand house on the block.
I’ve gone on about the scenery because it serves as a simulacrum for Eyre’s production more generally—that is, there are some ideas here, but even the promising ones mostly turn out to be misguided.
The overriding one is to treat Long Day as something akin to an early predecessor of Albee’s A Delicate Balance: a darkly funny, even tragicomic study in family dysfunction, with a modern edge. In practice, that means playing it faster and lighter, with an emphasis on acerbic humor.
I wonder what O’Neill, who described Long Day as his “play of old sorrow, written in blood and tears” would have made of the idea, but again, I was on board… in theory.
Strangely, this rather speedy, sometimes almost matter-of-fact production feels longer than any other Long Day I’ve seen, largely because so much of the quiet but life-altering moments go largely unmarked. A crucial one is Mary’s return to drug addiction, which can and should feel shattering, but here that cycle is blurry. This really is a classic subtext play—there’s very little action, and the family makes a concerted effort to suggest casual bonhomie. But that’s just it—the effort needs to be as visible to the audience as the banter.
Here, it doesn’t register—not in the mise-en-scène or the performances. The two sons are the weakest. Neither sounds convincingly American (the accents are off). Matthew Beard (Edmund) has a generalized likability, but fails to suggest the character’s poetic nature. (This is often a problem in Long Day productions—that we can’t really believe that Edmund will grow up to be Eugene O’Neill).
Rory Keenan effectively captures Jamie’s coarser side, but none of his self-destructive charm. One of Eyre’s good ideas—to depict Jamie’s alcoholism with harrowing specificity—is scuttled by Keenan’s lack of charisma. Instead of finding poignance in his illness, we’re merely put off.
Jeremy Irons is the show’s biggest drawing card, and James Tyrone—an aging matinee idol famous for his handsomeness and swagger—should be a perfect fit. It’s a technically fluent performance, and his famously sonorous voice is as distinctive and compelling as ever—but he looks like he’s going through the motions, and more than once I thought I could be watching a Jeremy Irons impersonator.
This leaves Lesley Manville, who for me was the greatest point of interest. She’s a superb actress with a highly individual quality—steel sheathed in softness. By rights, Long Day should belong to Mary. It does here, but again it’s only intermittent. Manville and Eyre have removed most of the distant, elegiac quality we associate with the character. Instead, she delivers chatty, almost stream of consciousness line readings that pack a waspish sting. In the plus column, we have a clearer sense of Mary’s passive-aggressiveness than ever before. But the fleet brightness robs the character of her darker moments, and the slow decline of Mary’s health and sanity doesn’t pierce us as it must.
To be fair, Long Day is a Parnassus of American drama—so many things to get right. I’ve never seen a production that achieved it all. The surprise here was that so many seemingly ideal elements could fall so far short of the mark, in what felt more like One Day’s Journey into Dusk.