Last Saturday night, the Newmark Theater lobby was abuzz. The much-heralded, championed, and lauded new production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, finally arrived after a month’s run in Sydney. A collaboration between that fair port city and ours, the play features two American actors, Academy Award winner William Hurt and Portlander Todd Van Voris, and three Aussie actors—most notably Robyn Nevin, whom Artists Rep Director Allen Nause calls, "the queen of Australian theater."
Nause took the podium to introduce Andrew Upton, who co-directs the Sydney Theater Company alongside Cate Blanchette. Upton, radiating goodwill, spoke of the two theater companies’ collaboration as "a leap of faith," and candidly shared the initial challenge of casting. "This is a play that spans two generations. It’s hard to find actors who are young enough, with enough experience–and to find actors who are old enough, with enough fitness." Going on to mention Sydney Theater Company’s recent production of Our Town, Upton seemed to express appreciation not just for Long Day’s Journey, but more broadly for the circa-1950’s Americana theater genre, saying, "you should all be very culturally proud."
So, the play is great. A shining triumph of cross-equatorial collaboration, a celebration of A-list talent. Of course, watching a play is nothing like hearing about how great a play is. If it were–let’s face it–no one would go. A play, no matter how prestigious, is a sensory barrage of words, impressions, emotions, energies, and moments. For Culturephile, certain things stood out, and others faded into the impenetrable recesses of the long night. Here’s a collection of a few lingering impressions, distilled over a couple of subsequent long days:
Interspersed with the action, were many moments where characters would very nearly freeze–sometimes draping in an embrace, and sometimes standing apart, heads aloft, gazing far away. The effect was quite literally picturesque. Cradling her slender son Edmund in the long skirts on her lap, Mary Tyrone almost evoked the Pieta. And, lit by a single candlestick lamp, hunched in perfect profile over at a small table set with–not daily bread, but whiskey–James Tyrone posed a near-perfect copy of Eric Endstrom’s classic painting Grace, gravely reinforcing that this was a man who prayed to the bottle each night.
Robin Nevyn as Mary Tyrone
In her portrayal of a recovering and relapsing morphine addict, Nevyn, true to the script’s explicit direction, used nervous gestures, fluttering her hands like awkward birds, and furtively darting her eyes. Other tiny telltale twitches, like the way she slyly buttoned her sleeve after having disappeared for a long time, were welcome additions to the scripted moves. But as she gradually surrendered her body, piece by piece, first into opiated languor, and finally into childlike, tiptoeing dementia, it was clear that she was not only acting the scenes, but simultaneously pulling herself through an isometric workout–imposing increasing resistance on her limbs, back, and even mouth and tongue, to mimic a morphine high.
Todd Van Voris as Jamie
As the play’s drunk, sarcastic son, Van Voris was tasked with less swoon and more stumble. But equally at home in his ample frame, Van Voris used his moves to magnify the mood swings voiced in Jamie’s orations. He was up, he was down. He had his brother’s back, then lurched suddenly into his face. He was falling–oh no, he had his footing, he was fine. Audibly thumping his head on the floor in self-reproach before succumbing to a drunken slump, Van Voris lent literal weight to every verbal point, with impeccable timing and a prat-faller’s deceptive grace.
The play’s soundscape was extremely sparse–mostly, just unaccompanied speaking. The main exception was the recurrent moan of a foghorn. Never a pleasant chord, a foghorn is at best a broad, empty pentatonic set of notes, and this one seemed enhanced with extra-dissonant, distressing intervals. (Sevenths? Twelfths?) A foghorn is a warning; this foghorn bayed foreboding.
MOMENTS IN METAPHOR
When Mary Tyrone talked of "the fog," the implied dual meaning laid thick in the air. One could feel her opiate fog, like the physical fog—obscuring people and details, softening the edges, providing an insular privacy and peace, even as it made for–erm–treacherous navigation.
The Stage Set
The set consisted of a rhomboid panel and heavy overhead beams, which criscrossed in a carpenter’s nightmare, slanting diagonally where they should be fair. In the middle, a small, squared window was installed straight–but the panes were cloudy. Nothing is quite right, the set’s elements hinted. Vision is obscured, and the sky might be falling. In the second act, the set nearly doubled in depth. The window, its lone detail, was pulled backward, and became distant and oblique, as if to say, Vision is beyond reach now. We’ve gone too deep.
The set colors also served as symbols. The stark gray of the main set elements invoked the austerity, stability, and stoicism of stone. Meanwhile, the whole set was contained in a giant red frame–signaling, perhaps, that passion, embarrassment, and anger encroached on the family from all sides. The deep, bloody shade could even reference the blood a consumptive patient might cough into his handkerchief, foreshadowing Edmund’s fate. As the final scene closed, the set’s red edges ominously glowed.
SPIKES OF IRONY
William Hurt’s Inscrutable Work
William Hurt, who began his acting career at Ashland Shakespeare festival and went on to a mid-career Oscar win, has been given a speech where his character recounts a very similar bio. Through the mouth of his character, alcoholic actor James Tyrone, Hurt described rising from humble beginnings, and eventually playing one big starring role to great critical acclaim. Hurt’s character went on to lament that the burst of success had ultimately stunted his acting craft, leaving his best role in the past. Whether the assertion of creative defeat felt real to Hurt, or only to his character James Tyrone, became impossible to tell. The actor’s delivery of an actor’s bio which so closely mirrored his own, was almost humorously believable, and the implication that the actor himself could be undermining his own current craft, posed such sacrilege to the crowd, that the room was set on-edge."What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder," mused the man that was both William Hurt, and James Tyrone. "Well, no matter. It’s a late day for regrets."
Let’s also note: for a Shakespeare guy, and for an Oscar guy, and for an actor playing an actor—Hurt’s acting aired well on the subdued side. Delivering his signature quick and deadpan cadence, punctuated by a few shouts and smiles, Hurt seemed to interpret his character’s whiskey haze, as a nerve-dampening malaise.
The final scene semi-sarcastically compared Mary Tyrone to Ophelia, yet moments later, Nevin quite faithfully reprised that Shakespearean damsel’s tragic performance. "The Mad Scene; enter Ophelia," sneered Jamie. But–no sneer about it–here came Nevyn in perfect form, to muse madly, and desperately drown. That is both the brilliance and the discomfiture of O’Neill’s glaringly self-aware characters: they reference Shakespeare, even as they’re doomed to relive it.
The character Edmund, who reportedly mirrors the playwright himself, is described as the Tyrone family’s "golden boy." Handsome, energetic, and credible in his monologues, actor Luke Mullins aptly personified that part of his role, charming his mother and entertaining his brother. In fact, Edmund seemed in haler shape than his (supposedly sturdier) brother Jamie. This would be great, if Edmund’s cough, and the family’s speculation that it might signal a deadly disease, were not a major plot-point. As it was, Mullins only seemed to cough at convenient lulls between speeches, lending a wan credibility to his mother’s theory that he merely suffered a "summer cold." Overall, Mullins came across as more favored, than fevered.
Show us the Money
When James Tyrone gave his son Edmund some spending-money to go downtown, the act was mimed. Hurt leafed through invisible "money" and handed it off, and Mullins glanced at his hand, seeming to confirm a count. Needless to say, in a play that incorporates few props (whiskey bottles, playing cards, and a wedding dress are all that come to mind) every piece stands out. At that moment, the empty-handed actors reminded the audience that the whole thing was pretend.
This production literally packed a couple weak punches. LDJ is not the kind of play that would ever erupt into a brawl; that said, a couple times Mr. Hurt froze his fist at half-fling, well before it was blocked by its intended victim. It appeared that James Tyrone was pretending to try to hit Jamie rather than swinging and missing. A conscious character choice? Perhaps. Either way, it seemed hard to believe that a family this troubled, wouldn’t try to throw real blows.
In the second half of the show, as Edmund dramatically stumbled down a house aisle, a cell phone trilled two loud rings, shattering the focus and the illusion, until the sound was silenced. This unfortunate moment surely burdened the offending audience member with the kind of regret that’s so often referenced in the play: the feeling of having done something terrible that can’t be undone. For shame. (But perhaps in future, a post-intermission reminder?)
PEANUT-GALLERY EXIT POLL
Scattered murmurs in the ladies’-room line echoed a cohesive theme: Robyn Nevin was the favorite actor in the production. Not just the favorite actress, mind you, but the one the ladies deemed best thesp. Dismiss it on the basis of gender bias if you must, or say that things discussed in such an informal setting hold no water (sorry). But the comment was perceptibly unanimous, so Culturephile must faithfully report.
One attendee, who admitted he doesn’t catch a lot of plays, but often plays poker, deemed Hurt’s speech "way too fast" for his taste, and reported being distracted by the vague, brief attention Mullins and Hurt gave their card game, saying, "They didn’t really finish dealing. I couldn’t tell what they were playing."
An Artists’ Rep staffer who didn’t participate in this production, wondered aloud if Nevin’s closing scene was subtly miked. "I don’t know if they had a mic on her, or if it was just something she was doing with her voice…but she was gradually getting louder and louder [even though her tone seemed quiet], and her voice was filling the room. I’ll have to ask around. That effect was really eerie."