Monday, April 16, 2007

A Moon for the Misbegotten

One would think the subtitle of this revival was “Comedy Tonight” the way the audience laughed heartily throughout. But Eugene O’Neill wrote only one comedy, and “A Moon for the Misbegotten” isn’t it.
Laughter is appropriate, of course, in the first act. It’s the natural reaction to the shenanigans of Josie and her father as delightfully enacted by Eve Best and Colm Meaney. It’s tremendously fun to watch them, especially in the scene where they make sport of T. Stedman Harder (Billy Carter), the neighbor who despises them.
The second act, however, is not funny. This is where a broken man, overcome by alcoholism and guilt, pours out his grief to the woman whom he secretly loves and who has secretly loved him for years, and she offers him forgiveness. It is the only O’Neill play in which a tortured character actually receives absolution. “I am the one person who loves you enough to forgive you,” Josie says. It should evoke a sense of connection to this man’s -- and woman’s -- pain and loneliness. But at the performance I saw Friday night the audience laughed almost continually. The only reason I can figure for this inappropriate response is Kevin Spacey’s take on the role of Jim Tyrone. He had an almost vaudeville-like delivery; I half expected him to hold up a pretend cigar Groucho Marx-style as he raced through his lines. But Jim’s despair is not the stuff of comedy. “I knew I was lost with all hope gone,” he tells Josie. “All I could do was drink myself to death.” That kind of hopelessness shouldn’t draw a laugh.
I have seen this play at least two times before, once at Baltimore’s Center Stage, where excellence is the norm, and again when it was last revived on Broadway in 2000 with Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne, and I’ve seen the Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards version on video. Each time I was able to come to a sense of sadness for Jim and Josie, but his time I only felt it for Josie. Ms. Best shines as Josie in the second act, portraying her vulnerability and the virginal quality that I felt with Ms. Jones but not Ms. Dewhurst.
While Ms. Best was fabulous with this side of Josie, I had more trouble with her in the first act. It was hard to see this acclaimed British actress as the great cow of a woman O’Neill envisioned. Besides being physically far from a great cow, she seemed too wholesome and girlish to bring off Josie’s tough false bravado. Ms. Jones achieved this balance better than either Ms. Best or Ms. Dewhurst. (Both Mr. Byrne and Mr. Robards were right on the mark as Jim. I don’t remember the names of the actors I saw at Center Stage, but they were solid.)
I enjoyed this performance in spite of my problems with Mr. Spacey’s Jim because I cherish this play and I tried to focus on the characters, and actors, I loved instead of this one actor’s unfortunate portrayal. My desire for this interpretation of Jim is similar to Josie’s desire for her Jim: “May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”

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