Sunday, September 23, 2007

opening-night review of *Long Day’s Journey Into Night*

at Actors Repertory Theatre through Oct. 9

In director Michael Weaver’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s *Long Day’s Journey Into Night* (at Actors Rep through Oct. 9), a mostly lackluster first two acts are redeemed by a powerful finale and buoyed by the performance of Karen Nelsen as Mary Tyrone, the drug addict who couldn’t handle the truth even before she started shooting up. With Wes Deitrick offering a weak performance as the patriarch, however, a lot of O’Neill’s emotional impact is dulled. As the two sons — drunken, self-hating Jamie and the sickly poet Edmund — Carter J. Davis and Damon C. Mentzer are good throughout but have their most searing scenes at the end, meaning that the ARt *Journey* delays its deepest impact until its third and final hour.

*Long Day’s Journey,* set nearly a century ago, offers dated phrases like “you’re a fine lunkhead” as insults actually meant to sting. But if you substitute your own particular form of addiction for the Tyrones’ whiskey and morphine, Journey morphs into a contemporary play. The play hammers away at our denials, our unwillingness to face the truth, our eagerness to blame circumstances and other people and the past — anything but ourselves.
It’s three hours of denial junkies raging at one another, lashing each other with the very things they least want to hear about themselves. The gloom and tension is evident even in the happy-family-over-breakfast façade of the opening scene, and it worsens into crescendo of self-hatred in the third hour.
Long before then, though, we have Nelsen’s carefully wrought performance to contemplate. With fingers fluttering upwards for continual adjustments to her hair, she conveys the paranoia of a guilt-ridden woman. She plays the nervous coquette out of dimly-remembered habit; her chin dips when she apologizes, but then she quickly squints to see how her apology is playing with the three men who know her best and know her secrets. Small lies catch in her throat; bigger lies lead to outright denials, with Nelsen capturing how the lady is protesting far too much.
She blames her husband and son for leaving her alone and then, with no sense of self-contradiction, for not leaving her alone. Nelsen makes it appear that Mary holds two contradictory ideas in her mind at once — they caused her to sink into drugs, she’s brought the misery of drug addiction upon herself — showing us the mark of F. Scott Fitzgerald called a first-rate intelligence (and first-rate acting) all at once.

In the role of James Tyrone — a portrait of the whiskey-swilling, penny-pinching, washed-up-but-proud Irish actor who was Eugene O’Neill’s father — Wes Deitrick is no David Ogden Stiers. It’s not fair, of course, to criticize the production that might have been, only the one that’s being presented. What Deitrick presents us with, however, is a weak vocal delivery and a hesitant physical presence. There’s none of the stentorian actor who’s made his living for years by swashing and buckling in a hackneyed stage romance (as the elder O’Neill really did in *The Count of Monte Cristo*). There’s none of the charisma and blarney that make Tyrone capable of being ingratiating. Instead, there’s the snarling insecurity of the man who fought his way out of poverty only to see his wife and sons turn out to be even greater disappointments than he was to himself. In that, Deitrick’s performance is good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. Deitrick’s not up to a towering role like Tyrone; few actors are.

Each of *Journey*'s characters is in denial about some important part of their family life, yet each of them acts as a truth-teller, exposing whatever the others least want to hear. They love one another even as they lash out with hateful accusations. They’re filled with rage at the gap between how their lives could have been and how much cheaper they turned out. And they turn to forgetfulness in whatever form’s at hand: sleep, an idealized past, blame directed outward (but almost never the reverse), alcohol, drugs, denial.
While the Actors Rep production is flawed, the cumulative effect of three hours spent with such self-deluded, fallible, yearning human beings is of having been told a corrective tale. We all have our little addictions — the ones that help us forget the lies we tell about ourselves, to ourselves.


For a revised and extended version of this review, please pick up a copy of the Thursday, Sept. 27, *Pacific Northwest Inlander* for comments on the performances of Mentzer and Davis; on further aspects of Deitrick’s performance as James Tyrone, both bad and good; on how being in denial is embedded in the fabric of O’Neill’s play; and on the designs of John Hofland (set), Justin Schmidt (lighting) and Patrick Treadway (sound).


At September 23, 2007 2:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Bobo, I must totally disagree with your assessment of this production. I found the editing, the directing, and the acting to be exceptional.

At September 23, 2007 4:01 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Dear Curmudge,
What do you mean by editing?
Didn't the bright, cheerful set seem at odds with the script's emotional tenor?
And you haven't seen yet what I've written (so far) about all four main cast members in the third (fourth) act -- they were all exceptional there, I thought.

At September 23, 2007 5:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you did not notice that a four hour play was edited down to a three hour play, then I think the editiy was pretty smooth. And that is what I meant by editing.
As for the set, is was the sitting room of a summer house, wasn't it?

At September 23, 2007 5:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry, but I don't understand something. Why would you take Wes Deitrick to task because he is not Mr. Stiers. Were you expecting Mr. Stiers even though you knew he had to bow out? Why are you spending your time compairing Mr. Deitrick's performance to the non-performance of Mr. Stiers. It is like compairing a fact (Mr. Deitrick's performance) to some fantasy creature like a unicorn.

Wouldn't it be better to simply review the play as presented and not try to parallel the David Sedaris piece of a Broadway theater critic reviewing a grade school Christmas play.

I will see the play next week. My guess is also that the bright, cheerful set is an ironic, maybe even sarcastic, comment on the gloom of the family.

Just wondering. I hope you can clarify things.

At September 27, 2007 1:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why use an actors name to gain ticket sales if you know well in advance he is not appearing but not announcing it until many people have already bought their tickets. Deception and fraud is what I see. Tell the truth!

At September 27, 2007 2:13 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

I had my head in movies when I posted my "editing" question, which was stupid, because you're right. I purposely didn't reread the play beforehand, just to keep the experience fresh. And it didn't drag much at all, certainly not after the second intermission, and I thought to myself, "Wow. just three hours" at the end, so of course I should have credited Michael for skillful text deletions.

To both you and 9/23 Anonymous;
I disagree about the set. I have praised John Hofland's set designs a lot in the past; I respect him and his work, and I'd like to discuss his intent on this one with him. That said, I really disliked this choice.
And yes, I'm influenced by having visited the O'Neill home in New London two summers ago when it was sweltering, and the room is restored to exactly as the opening stage directions describe, and it's a claustrophobic space with dark, oppressive wood on all six surfaces of the room.
Does that mean EVERY set for LDJIN has to be dark and gloomy? No, no more so than for *Hamlet* -- see the production design of Branagh's movie. But does going the other way in and of itself constitute irony? In my view, no.
I really would like to know John's and Michael's intentions here. But textually, it's a dining room and living room, and textually it gets progressively darker in that last act. To go in the exact opposite direction seems, to me, belied by the obvious tensions and resentments among this family right from the opening scene. You can't just throw the opposite of our expectations up there onstage and christen it "Irony." (I'm not saying that was John's intent. But I do feel that something in the zeitgeist has artists saying to themselves, "Ah-ha. X is the cliche here; it's what's expected. I will do the opposite of X and everyone will think me clever." Uh, no.
(Again, I am specifically NOT saying that that's what John is up to with his all-white set.)
But I would LOVE for him or anyone to write in with a reasoned explanation of why I am full of merde on this account.)
And besides, what do I know?-- I didn't even notice the dropping bits of fabric that Jim K. mentioned in his review. Not at all.

D.O. Stiers, I felt, had to be mentioned. Large numbers of people who attend this show are going to know that he had been announced for this role. So, he needs to be mentioned but not elaborated on. I did that: I mentioned him and then, in the very next sentence, pointed out the unfairness. Wes stepped into a very difficult situation. As I tried to make clear in the revised-expanded-printed version (which appeared after you wrote your comment), I thought that Wes was much stronger in the final act (why I'm a miser, admitting how I got stuck in that damn Monte Cristo role, admitting all that to Edmund).
Tough situation for me, too: Wes is a friend. I've been to his house. I very much appreciate all he has done for theater around here in the last three years -- at Civic, Interplayers, Actors Rep. But in specific ways (vocally weak, weak mannerisms, not enough towering dignity of the tragic actor, etc.), I thought the role escaped him.
I couldn't play that role; it's titanic. It's like the King Lear of American theater. So, he succeeded in some bits and didn't fare as well with most others. He gave it a good shot, stepped into a sticky wicket, fell short. Just my view. Others come to his defense, great: Then we have people directly supporting efforts in local theater. As with ALL my opinions, I may be wrong. The payoff is not in my pronouncements but in the discussions and disagreements they engender. That's a small part of what keeps theater alive and vital (MOST of what keeps it alive are the directors and actors and stage managers and ticket takers and all the backstage staff and volunteers and ticket buyers ...).


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