'Moon' Shines

The latest Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's 'Moon for the Misbegotten' offers plenty of laughs to leaven O'Neill's tragedy. WGT Culture Editor Patricia Jameson-Sammartano offers her take.

New York – It is unusual — not to say oxymoronic — for us to linkEugene O'Neill with laughter, but that is what Kevin Spacey, Eve Best and Colm Meaney have accomplished in The Old Vic's production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," playing currently at Brooks Atkinson Theatre. O'Neill's last work, written in 1943, and, in its fourth revival on Broadway, originated last fall in London with the Old Vic Theatre Company, to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. We have never heard audiences laugh so hard at an O'Neill play.

All Photos By
Simon Annand

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" is set in New London, Conn., in September 1923. It opens on a realistic set of a rundown shanty with a corrugated tin roof listing to right; a look at the place says "drunken house" because the whole set appears tipsy. Electric poles and lines, a clothesline with raggedy clothing strung up, bales of hay, hurricane lamps, a water pump, a fallen sign and a seedy armchair complete the picture. The house exemplifies the lower class of people living there, tenant farmers who raise pigs. This most Irish of O'Neill's plays focuses on land, home and security, and represents a natural progression from "A Touch of the Poet," set first in O'Neill's Irish-American trilogy, to "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Eve Best portrays Josie Hogan and Colm Meaney her father, Phil.

We hear the whistle of a train and an Irish pipe, and then Josie Hogan, played with distinction by English actress Eve Best, rushes through the open screen door of the house to feed the chickens and to give her father's money to her brother Mike, who is fleeing to Bridgeport. Mike, played ably by Eugene O'Hare, is running away from their father, Phil Hogan. Hogan, portrayed by Dublin-born Colm Meaney, enters, asking Josie, "How much did you steal?" answering his own question with, "It's worth six dollars to see the last of him." We learn early in the play that Hogan had three sons; his wife died in childbirth when Mike was born, and, afterward, Hogan never set foot in a church again. The parallels between Hogan and James Tyrone Sr. in "Long Day's Journey into Night" are instantly recognizable; both are wily Irish misers who dole out love and liquor to their children, which in this play includes Tyrone as Hogan plays a surrogate father to him. Hogan adores Josie, calling her a "terrible wanton woman," but reveals, "If you'd have married, I'd have lost your help and company."

The physical comedy between Best and Meaney is extremely well done; the dialogue crackles between tenant farmer and his daughter. She rages at him, sarcastically calling him, "a fine Irish gentleman," and he gives just as good as he gets, telling her that they might lose their home, but if she is extra nice to the landlord, Jim Tyrone, "Maybe he'd like a fine figure of a woman." It seems that Tyrone has always promised to sell the shanty and the land it leans on to Hogan for a reasonable price. The timing of the dialogue is magnificent. It comes as no surprise that both Best and Meaney were nominated for the Laurence Olivier Awards in Britain for their work in "Moon," for Best Actress and Best Performance in a Supporting Role; the play was also nominated for Best Revival.

'A Moon for the Misbegotten' is a play about simple love.

Broadway swell Tyrone, played by Kevin Spacey, enters, calling Hogan the "Duke of Donegal" and asking Josie, "How's my Virgin Queen of Ireland?" He asks for water, saying his throat's parched, and warns Phil and Josie that their neighbor T. Stedman Harder is coming to complain about the Hogans' pigs wallowing in his ice pond. Hogan, in his Irish accent, angrily declares, "They're fine American-born pigs," and we are further introduced to the more Irish dimension of the play: Harder is British, and that's reason enough for Hogan's ire. Tyrone hides in the shanty as the hapless Harder, played with an overwhelming foppishness by Billy Carter, enters in riding clothes. He is verbally assailed by Hogan as soon as he enters: "How many pigs died? You pig-murdering tyrant, like the King of England at an Irish wake," and then is physically assaulted as Josie pours water over his head. Tyrone is rolling on the floor laughing. Harder exits as quickly as he can, and Tyrone tells Josie, "Mother me, I love it."

An image of woman as either Madonna or whore permeates this play. Although Josie has sworn she is no virgin, but an ugly old crone, she is not, and the attractive Eve Best does not look this part. Josie has a self-image problem; she is as much of a misfit as Tyrone or her father.

The scenes between Best and Spacey are electric in their intensity; these are two who need love, who hunger after love, but who will ultimately lose love, and that is what makes 

Kevin Spacey portrays Jim Tyrone, with Eve Best, right, as love interest Josie.

this play a tragedy. At the end of Act I, Josie extracts a promise from Tyrone that he will come to her that night in the moonlight. Instead, her father stumbles drunkenly onstage, raging against Tyrone and Standard Oil, the source of Harder's wealth. Hogan has heard in the village that Harder offered Tyrone $10,000 cash for the Hogan place, and he's afraid the offer will be accepted. Josie, angry, offers to get Tyrone so drunk that he will forget the offer; knowing Tyrone's vulnerability to women, she will play on it. She will seduce him and save their home.

Tyrone is late getting to the shanty, but he arrives drunkenly in the ghostly moonlight, telling Josie, "Let the dead past bury the dead." He lets her know that he's slept with many "drunken tramps," but she is beautiful. Echoing "Long Day's Journey Into Night," he says her father is "the only real friend I have except you — I love your guts." He later tells Josie he loves her, and tells her his terrible secret. Then he sobs himself to sleep in her arms, and we are left with a Pieta-like impression of the two. It is a long scene, filling the better part of an hour, but that hour zips by.

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" is a play about simple love: Josie's for Jim Tyrone, his for her and for his mother, Josie's for her father — but especially Eugene O'Neill's love for his own (older) brother Jamie (represented by Jim Tyrone). The play is set in 1923, by which time O'Neill had lost his parents and Jamie, who drank himself to death at 45. Indeed, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" sprang from an incident in the first act of O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" involving a pig-farming tenant named Shaughnessy and Harker, the Standard Oil millionaire, and other than name changes, the story's much the same, except "Moon" focuses on O'Neill's brother. This was a role played with equanimity by Kevin Spacey in the 1986 Broadway production of "Long Day's Journey into Night." It's altogether fitting that he should star in the sequel, and he has demonstrated his growth, giving us a finely detailed Jim Tyrone.

The acting in this play is outstanding: Best and Spacey, who has been Creative Director of the Old Vic since 2003, have both received Drama Desk nominations, and Eve Best has received a Tony nomination for Best Actress. Direction by Hugh Davies is superb; at his touch, the tone of the play changed from the somber atmosphere of the earlier play, even as O'Neill continued to deal with Tyrone family matters, substance abuse at the forefront. The scenic design by Bob Crowley and lighting design by Mark Henderson also add to the play; the simple set served as a metaphor for drunkenness, while the lighting showed the passage of time. To quote Jim Tyrone, "Here's how!" See this play before its run ends on Broadway in June. WGT

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Tags: Broadway, Eugene, Misbegotten, Moon, O'Neill, for, revival, the

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