This drama was written in 1943, just a brief span of time after O’Neill had written his masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” continues and, in a way, completes the autobiographical story told in the earlier play, the tale of the troubled family of the actor, James O’Neill, recreated by the playwright as James Tyrone.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in which all four members of the Tyrone family appear, is set in l912, while “A Moon for the Misbegotten” takes place in 1926. In the intervening 14 years, James Tyrone, Sr., and his drug-addicted wife, Mary Cavan Tyrone, have both died, while the younger of their two sons, Edmund, the playwright’s self-portrait, has moved away from the family’s Connecticut home, married, and fathered a child.
James Tyrone, Jr., called Jamie, is still on deck, a Broadway habitue and wastrel who comes and goes at will, returning when he feels like it to the family property, to which, as the oldest surviving Tyrone, he holds the title.
The play has been problematical from its inception, mainly because of O’Neill’s description of the female lead, 28-year-old Josie Hogan, the daughter of Phil Hogan, the Irish- born tenant farmer who raises pigs on land owned in part by the Tyrones.
O’Neill, who tended to write overly elaborate stage directions and character descriptions, really outdid himself when it came to Josie. “She is so oversize for a woman,” he wrote, “that she is almost a freak — five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty.”
Casting a suitable Josie Hogan has always been a barrier to productions of the play, but, from time to time, an actress will jettison the playwright’s cumbersome descriptions and undertake the role. Actresses who have played Josie include Wendy Hiller, Colleen Dewhurst and, most recently, Cherry Jones.
When Kevin Spacey, the artistic director of London’s Old Vic, announced his intention of bringing his theater’s production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” to New York, it was assumed that he had solved “the Josie problem” for once and all by casting Eve Best in the role. This turns out not to be the case, which is one of the more serious problems attendant to director Howard Davies’s staging of the play.
Best seems to be an actress of unusual intelligence, which is not exactly what is called for in playing a cumbersome, awkward farm woman who stays behind to look after her brutish, bullying father after her three brothers have fled the scene. She never suggests the lack of confidence that led her to become the manipulative old man’s slave; by the same token, “Star Trek” veteran Colm Meaney, in the role of Phil Hogan, never achieves the malevolence which is built into the character, the laziness and selfishness which have motivated him into turning his only daughter into an unpaid servant.
On the face of it, the gifted and fearless Kevin Spacey would appear to be an ideal Jamie Tyrone. A decade or so ago, Spacey gave a great performance as the l912 version of the same character in the Broadway production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” directed by Jonathan Miller.
For some unfathomable reason, Meaney, Best, and particularly Spacey are getting more laughs than would seem to be part of this particular play. Built into Jamie’s dialogue are a series of what might be called verbal switchbacks, with one line betrayed or contradicted by the one immediately following it. The desired effect is similar to what O’Neill had achieved in 1926’s “Strange Interlude,” with characters speaking their private thoughts as asides to the audience, supposedly unheard by the other characters in any particular scene.
The lightning transitions required are murderously difficult to pull off, and Spacey, despite the production’s London stand, doesn’t yet seem to be in full control of this aspect of his performance. The reactions of New York audiences are notoriously different from those of their London counterparts. Perhaps Spacey, in the production’s early Broadway performances, is still in the process of adjusting to those differences.
With a little more playing, the new production of Eugene O’Neill’s final work, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” will settle down and be everything it ought to be.