Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Seth Duerr
York Shakespeare Company
Lion Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
For the masochistic theatergoers drawn to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical study of the universal hell we call family, expectations going into the play offer two possible scenarios, neither of which can really be described as enjoyable. First there is the fear that the performing troupe will fumble through this four-act magnum opus without ever finding its true heart, thereby suffocating us with an ultimately empty three hours of arrhythmic conversations about dysfunction and denial. The second, and perhaps more frightful, possibility is that the play will actually be done right, and the multilayered wretchedness of the Tyrone family will reflect so accurately back at us that we will lament the failings of our own genetic ties for weeks to come.
Either way, one does not expect to leave the theater feeling particularly chipper, but it is nevertheless a dubious joy that the York Shakespeare Company leaves us feeling joyless in such a fitting way. The company’s scaled-down production on Theatre Row, though far from flawless, offers moments of absorbing drama and real tension, particularly in the scenes between the Tyrone sons, Jamie and Edmund, played by Seth Duerr and Alexander Harvey. Duerr, who also directs, skillfully unearths the few likable traits in the whiskey-swigging ne’er-do-well Jamie, while Harvey’s resemblance to a young O’Neill, on whom the character of Edmund is based, gives the production an eerie voyeuristic quality. Together, the exchanges between these two actors are an engaging illustration of Irish-American siblinghood: a fractious reality in which a sucker-punch to the jaw is easily followed by a quick drink and a hardy, “I love your guts, kid.”
Rebecca Street and Bill Fairbairn are passable as Mary and James Tyrone, though they are less dynamic than the younger actors. Street presents Mary’s drug-induced numbness with a hollow anguish that grows more tragic as the play progresses. Her stunning, angular features make her believable as a zombified former trophy wife, but she remains too reserved during Mary’s emotional outbursts. Fairbairn’s James, meanwhile, is charming and sympathetic, but not the commanding presence one might wish for this central character. Julie Jesneck, as the young maid Cathleen, could use some dialect coaching for her wandering Irish brogue, but the spunky actress adds terrific energy and humor to the show when it sorely needs it.
Journey was written in 1942, but it was not performed until 1956, two years after O’Neill’s death. More than 50 years onward, some of its most appealing elements reside in its references to celebrity life, which are at once dated and timeless. Set in 1912, the play is stamped with nods to theater and Broadway as existing on top of the entertainment totem pole, archaic by any post-celluloid measure. And yet the Tyrones remain the quintessential American showbiz family. Their limbic existence, though comfortable, is a kind of surreal dream that breeds society’s admiration and contempt in equal amounts. The patriarchal James, a once-revered stage actor who now delights in flouting the sensibilities of his conservative Connecticut community, is an archetypal celebrity eccentric; as he clips his hedges in a tattered suit, he waves to his snooty neighbors in the same way Tom Cruise danced on Oprah’s couch, as a proud oddball. To the extent that we like to see our oddball celebrities crash and burn, the York’s Journey does not disappoint. It is, for all its pessimism and despair, enjoyably unenjoyable.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, May 2010