Mourning Becomes Electra
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 14, 2009
The New Group's production of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is incredibly problematic. The problems stem from one source: director Scott Elliott's lack of a concept. In effect, the four-hour-and-fifteen-minute production of O'Neill's Civil War-set adaptation of the Oresteia is wildly uneven and in many cases, downright bizarre, with out-of-place modern flourishes.
For a plot summary, check out Sparknotes.
Beyond a note in the program and period costumes, there is absolutely no indication that "the action takes place at the Mannon house in New England in April 1865 and summer of 1866." We enter to see a fully realized portrait of the sprawling home on an easel; what remains throughout the show is the doorway with a lot of furniture, so that the outside porch can double as the inner sitting room. There are no windows or shutters to nail shut, which Lavinia crucially orders at the very end, to lock herself away from the world.
Lili Taylor as Christine, the Clytemnestra figure, suffers the most from the lack of concept. It's unclear whether she's miscast or just out to sea because she doesn't get the character. She delivers a relentlessly fast-paced performance, often shouting and plowing through her lines with the speed of a runaway freight train, reminiscent of Kevin Spacey in the recent A Moon for the Misbegotten revival.
Jena Malone and Joseph Cross, as Lavinia and Orin, the characters based on Electra and Orestes, fare better. Their performances are well-rounded and arced. The downside is that they, along with most of the other cast members, deliver lines with a distinct modern vocal inflection. Malone also has a pixie haircut which is decidedly out-of-period. Mark Blum, as General Ezra Mannon, is far too over-the-top in terms of physicality, and we can clearly see his stomach moving up and down long after it's been announced that his character has died (at least, we could at the performance I attended).
Susan Hilferty's costumes are by far the most satisfying of the design elements (even if, in a variety of green dresses, Taylor looks more like Princess Fiona in Shrek). The lighting, by Jason Lyons, is simply fascinating, but it isn't appropriate for this show. And the less said about Derek McLane's abstract set, the better.
Those who are familiar with Elliott's work will not be surprised to hear about an overload of sexual content in this staging, his having added (unnecessary) full-frontal nudity into Claire Booth Luce's The Women and The Threepenny Opera. There's no nudity here, but the overt, over-the-top sexual content is just as out of place and, one would imagine, entirely unintended by O'Neill. To have Catherine Mannon and her lover, Adam Brant, plotting the murder of her husband, General Ezra, while writhing around on the stage floor in the missionary position detracts from what's going on in the scene. (Not to mention that the scenes placed on the stage floor were often blocked by audience members' heads.) Later, there is the implication that Lavinia makes love to her dead father's body.
The blame must squarely be placed on the director. The lack of a concept, the uneven performances, the strange design all point to a person who didn't have an appropriate feel for the text. It wasn't even the length that was bothersome; it was the fact that the inappropriate staging completely changed the intentions of the play for the worse.
It's very unfortunate that this production is so far off the mark.