Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville dredge up family secrets in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's drama.
Theater review by Helen Shaw
Sometimes shows can buckle under the weight of their own pedigrees. There are big-ticket plays that terrify their actors; famous stars who fluster their colleagues; massive sets that turn environments from living things into monuments. The Bristol Old Vic’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night manages to have all three problems at once in the blustery, muddled production now at BAM, where the show’s three and half hours lumber very slowly by.
Eugene O’Neill takes some of the blame here. Even he was frightened of the play; he locked the script in a vault and asked that it not be performed for 25 years after his death. He couldn’t bear for people to see so nakedly autobiographical a piece—so insistently and precisely heartbreaking a portrait of his family. Long Day’s Journey is a tragedy à clef about O’Neill’s ruined clan: father James Tyrone (vain, penny-pinching, drunk), mother Mary (deluded, lonely, collapsing back into morphine addiction), older son Jamie (decadent, jealous, drinking himself to death) and younger son Edmund (O’Neill’s self-portrait, helpless to avert disaster). For all its pain, the play can be a difficult pleasure, as it was on Broadway in 2016. And in theory, this production seems promising. The text is built for a grandstander, so casting Jeremy Irons as hammy old actor James Tyrone is a wonderful idea, and Lesley Manville has the right tip-tilted face for Mary—yearning and prayerful in her aspect as she sinks into hell. What could go wrong?
It’s such a little thing that starts the trouble. Director Sir Richard Eyre casts Oscar winner Irons and Oscar nominee Manville alongside two (necessarily) less experienced actors—Rory Keenan as Jamie and Matthew Beard as Edmund—then tells them all they’ve got to sound American. Americans are dreadful at British accents, but usually you can count on the reverse not being true. Here, though, there are three approaches: Manville acquits herself beautifully; Irons sounds like a cartoon pirate; and the boys have gotten “turn of the century New England domestic drama” and “1970s cop thriller set in the Bronx” desperately confused. You’ve never heard “r”s hit so hard in your life. Like nails they hit them.
Eyre allows the two sons to play their parts in wildly outsized ways, so any scene with either of them gets yanked out of true. Thank heavens, at least, that Irons reverts to his normal voice after about an hour, and you can finally hear the character sink its cleats into the track. The turn comes in silence: As Mary’s addiction fully reveals itself, Irons freezes in his chair, his hand hovering just above the table next to him, and his lean face goes gaunt and sick; he ages ten years. Manville manages to do the opposite. Her beloved “medicine” softens and youthens her face. The more she doses, the more buoyant she seems, and designer Peter Mumford finds and isolates her in sweeter and brighter ethereal light. But although Manville and Irons (after he lets himself be British) find wonderful moments, the play as a whole keeps staggering. Eyre, with his mismatched quartet, can’t create a sense that the group is a family. Reams and reams of O’Neill’s language course between them, but there ought to be blood.
BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Richard Eyre. With Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville. Running time: 3hrs 30mins. One intermission.