A Performance of a Lifetime Makes This Moon Momentous

The new production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Walter Kerr Theater is a wonderful achievement on every level, and I trust that in years to come those of us who saw it will proudly say, “We were there.” It is, quite simply, one of those nights at the theater that we live for.

I know of no finer performances anywhere than the supreme ones of Cherry Jones, Gabriel Byrne and Roy Dotrice. The three of them are magnificent, bringing honor to O’Neill’s last drama that amounts to a Miracle Play in its pain and compassion and absolution. Ms. Jones and Mr. Dotrice deserve every praise, God knows. (And what a joy it is to see the veteran Roy Dotrice on Broadway again). But at the risk of running out of superlatives before we’ve scarcely begun, Gabriel Byrne’s tormented James Tyrone Jr. touches such greatness in the strength of his dark emotional honesty that I cannot imagine a different Tyrone, let alone a better one. Mr. Byrne’s restrained, amazing performance is one for the ages.

O’Neill quite famously based the central story of Moon for the Misbegotten on his guilt-ridden, alcoholic brother, James. He had portrayed him previously in Long Day’s Journey into Night and the 1947 “family” play that followed shows him in his early 40′s, the ghost of an Irish charmer close to death from booze and despair. A Moon for the Misbegotten is an Irish play in its humor and romantic spirit, and a Catholic one in terms of Barbara Gelb’s apt description of it as “a mass for the long-dead brother he had once dearly loved but had come to resent.”

The piece is O’Neill’s extraordinary benediction of his doomed, suffering brother who is forgiven in memory of their mother. It’s a heartbreaking confessional of a play, a form of blood-letting that hinges on Tyrone’s agonized confession, in the arms of Josie. When the mother he loved was dying on a train journey they were taking together, she awakened long enough to see him stupefied with booze. He was terrified of losing her. But on the train bringing her coffin home, he spent the time with a hooker and was too drunk to make the funeral.

Critics tell you what they know, never what they don’t know. While we’re on the subject of confessions, let me make one of my own about Eugene O’Neill. I cannot figure out how his plays work! How do they achieve greatness when most everything he does seems to fly in the face of it? He repeats his messages ad nauseam ; his plotting is clumsy; the texts are long and overwritten, as if daring cuts. Look at what appear to be glaring weaknesses in Moon for the Misbegotten . If you read the play, the lengthy Act One exposition seems laborious, the Freudianism naïve, the comedy leprechaun-quaint. He actually describes his 28-year-old heroine, Josie, as “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak.” She’s a farmworker who could, apparently, deck a cart horse with a single blow.

She is also O’Neill’s fantasy woman, a beautiful slut, virgin, daughter, substitute wife, Mother Earth, and female Christ. Who could play such a “freak”? Worse, the pivotal confessional scene between Tyrone and Josie that must take place “on a night different from any other under the moon” appears to set the stage not for tragedy, but for romantic melodrama.

O’Neill is risking a mighty fall with the play, and it failed badly when it was first produced. (But it wasn’t well cast.) He never saw a successful production during his lifetime. It wasn’t until Jose Quintero’s 1973 staging with the now mythic performances of Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards that its greatness was revealed. And Ms. Dewhurst was able to offer this brilliantly irreverent insight into O’Neill’s apparent flaws: “Like many great playwrights who are in some ways terrible writers but wonderful playwrights, he overwrites because he’s afraid. He forgets the actor…”

O’Neill lives only in the company of great actors, as the cast of this fine new production of Moon for the Misbegotten , superbly directed by Daniel Sullivan, make it truly alive. One cannot scrape by with O’Neill (or you’ll think him a “terrible writer”). What appears overwritten on the page can become in performance what Walter Kerr described admiringly as “life made on the wing rather than painstakingly remembered. It is an honest life and, for O’Neill, an unusually lyrical one; the crafty, the damned and the forgiving breathe.”

It is a love poem that O’Neill has written with Moon for the Misbegotten , and perhaps its unembarrassed, elemental emotion is its

real secret. It was born in agony. Yet it can be funny enough, particularly in the experienced hands of Roy Dotrice’s crafty Phil Hogan, who’s the father of Josie and as crooked as a corkscrew. Described as “spry on his legs as a yearling and as full of rage as a nest of wasps,” Mr. Dotrice plays the old goat to perfection. His opening words to Josie–”Haven’t you a tongue in your head, you great slut you?”–are affectionate in their rough way. He surely loves her, knowing the bigger truth about her.

Act One is banter and low comedy–the parody of the arrogant, wealthy neighbor (a countrified yuppie of his day) who’s sent packing by the impoverished Phil and Josie in their shanty. The mood remains light, even with the entrance of the handsome landlord, Tyrone, glimpsed in the distance “like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin.”

“Mother me, Josie. I love it,” Tyrone says sardonically to Josie, who’s concerned about him killing himself with drink.

Yet it is the purest love he craves in the warm, protective embrace of a lost mother. James Tyrone is a man in search of forgiveness. At heart, he and Josie are cut from the same pure cloth, and both sense each other’s secret. They are like fallen angels. He with his ghostly damnation and whores in New York; she, the self-proclaimed village slut who’s really a virgin. When she describes herself off-handedly to him as “only a big, rough, ugly cow,” he responds with the simple truth. “You’re beautiful…You’re beautiful to me…You’re real and healthy and clean and fine and warm and strong and kind.”

Mr. Byrne touches every emotional note without seeming to try. Yet he’s playing a man who is emotionally dead, choking on a guilt that’s killing him. The wounded Tyrone with his trembling hands itchy for another whisky has watched “too many dawns come creeping grayly over dirty windowpanes.” Mr. Byrne knows his Black Irishmen, and he has the look of one, too. Self-pity isn’t his game. He understands those sufferers who have already died of self-disgust, and will die again. Mr. Byrne’s unshowy, lacerating honesty is in perfect tune with Eugene O’Neill’s, and he is giving the performance of a lifetime.

“There. There, now,” Josie comforts Tyrone, sobbing cradled in her arms like a sick child. And so nakedly powerful is the confession scene between them that we feel compelled almost to hide our eyes and call out, “Pity! O, pity!” We have witnessed a kind of miracle in this passing night of grace. As Josie says with mock light-heartedness to her father after Tyrone has left her forever, “a virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin. If that isn’t a miracle, what is?”

Cherry Jones’ resonant notes of deep, quiet, compassionate strength and yearning for a love that will never be are stunning. A coarse earthiness might not yet have come fully to the boil in her Josie, but everything else about this near impossible role, including its quality of transcendent love, is in place in her beautiful performance. Let mention also be made of the difficult cameo roles of the runaway son, Mike Hogan, and the wealthy idiot next door, T. Stedman Harder, vividly played by Paul Hewitt and Tuck Milligan.

There are those who see in the final moments of A Moon for the Misbegotten Eugene O’Neill’s state of grace, the moment when his own tortured conscience eased. “May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling,” Josie calls after Tyrone, and completes the benediction. “May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.” But those haunting last words could also stay with us in ways that provoke unbearable sadness. Tyrone will soon die alone in a sanitarium, Josie is left to live with her father, and their purest love could not change a tragic fate. We may find understanding, O’Neill is saying. Who on earth finds peace?