On April 27 at the American Airlines Theatre, Broadway went into its sixth Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 60 years, with England’s Jonathan Kent directing a Grade-A cast through a domestic hell Eugene O’Neill could not bear to see in his lifetime.
The ultimate “trunk play,” O’Neill finished it July 22, 1941, and presented it to his wife, Carlotta, on their 12th wedding anniversary. There was a note: “Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.”
When it premiered 15 years later on Nov. 7, 1956, it was hailed as his masterpiece and pretty much remains so. Also, it won him, posthumously, a fourth Pulitzer Prize.
It’s a cleansing play, full of clashes, curses and autobiographical anguish. People are always lashing out at each other and then, unlike The Humans, promptly apologizing.
The O’Neills, renamed Tyrones here, are viewed interacting at their summer home one sweltering August day in 1912. The head of the house, James Tyrone, has sacrificed his reputation as a serious actor to take the low road to popular, better-paying matinee-idol fare (like James O’Neill with The Count of Monte Cristo). He has a horror that the poorhouse is around the corner, and this fear has driven his wife, Mary, to drugs and his firstborn, James Jr., to drink and prostitutes. And it may sentence his consumptive second son, Edmund, to a cheap, state-run hospital.
Gabriel Byrne, who is the penny-pinching patriarch here, has only appeared on Broadway in O’Neill. He played the sad end of James Tyrone Jr. in 2000’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and the blustery Corneilus Melody in 2005’s A Touch of the Poet.
“Some actors respond to Chekhov or Shakespeare, but there’s something about O’Neill that’s seems to me fathomless,” Byrne readily admitted, “and it doesn’t matter how deep you go. I did A Moon for the Misbegotten many years ago, and only now am I just beginning to understand how I could have done the role better.”
Jessica Lange’s Broadway work has heretofore been confined to Tennessee Williams—but they’ve been the pick of his litter (Blanche Du Bois in 1992 and Amanda Wingfield in 2005). She had no trouble crossing over to the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone. “This is a role that suits me best right now,” she said.
Her commitment to the part and the play is all-consuming. “You don’t have a lot of life outside of this,” the actress explained. “When you sleep late, you get up and you start immediately thinking about the play. Everything is geared toward this.”
As the big brother who conceals his deep-seeded sibling hatred, Michael Shannon makes his powerful presence felt, but he prefers to think his work is part of the team effort. “I’m most drawn to the family dynamic,” he confessed. “It’s not necessarily about my own character. It’s about the four of us together. The parts of the play I really look forward to every night is when all four of us are on stage at the same time. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s so fascinating to study how these four people relate to one another. That’s really what drew me to this project.”
Interestingly, Shannon’s current contribution to the Tribeca Film Festival—Elvis & Nixon—finds him playing Presley to Kevin Spacey’s Nixon, and Spacey was James Jr. in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1986 and A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2007.
A transformative mustache has brought John Gallagher Jr. to a closer visual likeness of the young O’Neill, who the ailing Edmund is supposed to represent. “That was my idea,” he crowed. “There’s always the concern that a mustache would be too on the money and distracting, but there is a real steeliness to Eugene O’Neill’s character for him to be the survivor of that family. When you look at those pictures of him as a young man, always with that mustache, I just thought it might give a little injection of the manhood that was to come from that role. At first, we weren’t sure about it, but I brought it into rehearsal one day and the director loved it so we went with it.”
The play is a personal favorite of his. “I’ve loved it for years, getting to work on it from the outside in and now from the inside out. Running every night has been such a gift. I just love the timeliness of it—the fact that it has aged so gracefully as a play.
“You’re dealing with the kinds of themes and issues that don’t get old. The family is a subject we’ll be writing about for years and years and years. The fact that you can come back to this one, and it’s as poignant and strong as ever, is such a genuine joy. This play is about four people who love each other so desperately, but just cannot claim these demons and resentments. They can’t communicate, and that’s what makes it all fall apart. There’s just something so beautiful and tragic about it.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night isn’t kidding about the Long. It runs three hours and 45 minutes, three minutes longer than Gone With the Wind, but what would you cut?
“O’Neill knew what he was doing,” Gallagher contended. “People always talk about the repetition of the play and how annoying that is, but I think it’s all intentional. I think that is the heart of the play. We all have the same conversations over and over and over again. That’s what I think is so brilliant about the writing of this play.”
Director Kent seconded that. “This play has themes and counter-themes and variations on themes,” he said. “It’s part of a whole. You wouldn’t cut a symphony.
“It’s a hard play to sustain, of course, because of the length. It’s exhausting for the actors—to do two shows on a Saturday is killing!—but I’m terribly proud of the way the four interact in their relationships on stage. That has been hard fought for, and I think they achieve it brilliantly. This was a collaborative effort. I think everybody was so overwhelmed by the genius of the play that we were happy to serve it.”