A Moon for the Misbegotten
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 13, 2007
A Moon for the Misbegotten is my sister's favorite play, and as a result it's one that I know pretty well. I saw the recent revival that starred Gabriel Byrne, Cherry Jones, and Roy Dotrice, and I've seen the famous (and I would argue definitive) 1974 revival, with Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, and Ed Flanders, on video. With all of this information floating around inside my head, I found myself a hard-to-please spectator at the current production, which comes to Broadway from London's Old Vic and features Kevin Spacey, Eve Best, and Colm Meaney. It's possible that if you've not seen this play before, you may be satisfied by this rendition. But I was mightily disappointed.
The play traces a day, night, and morning after in the lives of two lonely people. One is James Tyrone, Jr., more than a decade after the events of another Eugene O'Neill epic, Long Day's Journey Into Night—he's a man who hates that he has followed in his despised father's footsteps and become a hack actor, and who hates even worse that he drowns his disappointment in drinking and whoring. The other is Josie Hogan, the proud daughter of the Irish pig farmer to whom Tyrone leases a small, infertile patch of land in Connecticut. That Josie and Jim should be soulmates seems utterly unlikely, but it's so: both of them live by holding onto dreams and illusions that have shaped their very natures. And they're the only ones who can penetrate the other's illusions with comfort and safety.
I believe a key theme of the play to be along these lines: only the truth can set us free...but once we free ourselves, what we find in ourselves is often too painful to allow us to continue. One of the characters in A Moon for the Misbegotten learns this harsh lesson, while the other may well transcend it (I will leave it for you to discover which is which, if you don't know the play).
Another theme is stated by Josie late in the play: "...I have all kinds of love for you—and maybe this is the greatest of all—because it costs so much."
What's missing, for me, from the characters Best and Spacey create here (they essay the roles of Josie and Jim, respectively), is that "cost": neither performance penetrates very far beneath the surface, with his coming over as the glib glad-hander we've seen in other films and plays and hers a repressed spinster more interested in sex than love (she makes Josie seem like Lizzie in The Rainmaker). The long, life-giving night that the two spend together in the play's third act (here Acts II through IV have been condensed into a single long one after the intermission) is played for laughs, which is a way of reading it, but not the way that will take the audiences deeply under the skins of these people.
Meaney similarly displays little fire or vinegar as Josie's punchy father, Phil Hogan, and oddly (given that he was born in Dublin) he plays the role without an Irish brogue (despite O'Neill's explicit mention of one in his stage directions). Indeed, this whole English production seems determined to Americanize the playwright's Irishness, using woefully inappropriate music by Dominic Muldowney that sounds like it belongs in a Sam Shepard play, and a sandy (rather than rocky) set by Bob Crowley. Howard Davies's staging is brisk (Spacey's performance, as you have perhaps already read, sometimes seems to be at warp speed) and without much emotional clarity; Muldowney's music swells at the end of each scene as if it were scoring for a film instead of accompaniment for live theatre.
It all tends to make a molehill out of a mountain of a play: I wanted to go to the grueling depths where O'Neill wants to take us—and I bet most audience members would be willing to as well—but the company resolutely resist plunging anywhere near them.