PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Falls

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Falls The new mounting and fourth Broadway production of Long Day's Journey Into Night has had a long, long, and sometimes tortured journey to Broadway.
Robert Falls
Robert Falls (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

Talk of the production—which reunites producer David Richenthal, director Robert Falls and actor Brian Dennehy, all of whom won Tony Awards for 1999's Goodman Theater production of Death of a Salesman—began almost immediately after the Arthur Miller revival closed. But then Jessica Lange opened in a 2000 Bill Kenwright-produced London staging of the O'Neill classic and things started getting murky, with both producers hoping to make it to Broadway first. The showdown came to an end when Richenthal revealed he alone held the rights to produce Journey on Broadway. However, it wasn't until after an early 2002 Falls-Dennehy Journey went up at the Goodman, and Falls briefly exited from any future Broadway plans, that a New York revival starring Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard was finally announced for spring 2003. (Even then, the show spent most of this season searching for an vacant theatre, before, on failing to secure the Eugene O'Neill Theatre itself, finally landing at the Plymouth). After four such tumultuous and uncertain years, it's been a few months of relatively smooth sailing and—despite being in technical rehearsals for what is often called the greatest play ever written by an American—director Robert Falls looked relatively relaxed as he sat down to a salad and gin and tonic to discuss O'Neill, Dennehy, Redgrave, Richenthal and all the rest with Playbill On-Line.

Playbill On-Line: The situation you have with Long Day's Journey Into Night is quite different from that of Death of a Salesman, which you brought from the Goodman Theater in 1999. You are working with Brian Dennehy and producer David Richenthal again, as you did then, but otherwise the cast you have here is completely different from the one you directed in Chicago last year.
Robert Falls: Totally different. Salesman was always a Goodman theatre production and the fact that it came to New York was really a miracle to all of us. We hadn't considered it. This is the opposite. From the moment we finished up Salesman, Brian, David and I started plans for a Long Day's Journey that would be a Broadway production. That's almost four years now and a severely different route sort of took place.

PBOL: Yes, you all kept me quite busy reporting on Journey's twisted journey to Broadway.
RF: I know, I know. You know the history of it. But what's amazing is this is the cast that I ultimately really wanted three years ago. But, for a variety of reasons, we couldn't get that cast together, we certainly couldn't get that cast to commit to a Chicago production. I was on a timetable and had to go ahead with Chicago, happily did it and Brian committed as always. We played that out and then miraculously got it back on track to where it was a Broadway production.

PBOL: There was that break in 2002 where it seemed for a short while that David Richenthal had detached himself from the production.
RF: Actually, it's the other way around. I detached myself briefly. David has always had the rights to produce this on Broadway. What happened is, after I did it in Chicago, I sort of felt that I had done it. The thought of continuing it with a whole new cast, a whole new emotional commitment to very complex, difficult play—it was an exhausting thought. My mother died during the Chicago production. And she actually died an alcohol-related death—not to say she inspired Mary Tyrone for me, but my understanding of Mary Tyrone largely came from the circumstances surrounding my mother. There was a moment where David was saying "Let's get to work on recasting this for Broadway." David always felt that in order to produce the show on Broadway, it needed a star cast. I always agreed with that. It needed Brian Dennehy, but it also needed other actors as well. But my head was still in the Chicago production and I had personal issues. Then what happened is I just got some time off and got some distance and I said after a while, "I'm feeling a little better. Let's get back to it." It actually came together rather quickly with first Vanessa, then Bob Leonard, then a little later Phil—all of whom I had first approached about it.

PBOL: I remember reading about your talking to Leonard and Hoffman, but not Redgrave.
RF: That never made the papers, because it was done very quickly. I offered it to Vanessa. She couldn't do it. And it was after that that there was this investigation—which became very public and I think somewhat messy— surrounding Jessica Lange [who had done the play in London with producer Bill Kenwright]. Kenwright claimed he had the rights to do the play. Completely unconsulted by me, Jessica's name became attached to the project. And that had nothing to do with anything. PBOL: How much rehearsal time have you had in New York?
RF: We've had six weeks of rehearsals. A tremendous amount. That's much more than the average play gets.

PBOL: Have you needed it all?
RF: Yes. I wish I had more. It's a play that has such depth and richness, you could explore it forever. And the actors will, even before an audience. It's like Chekhov in that way. It needs long rehearsals, demands it and wants it.

PBOL: I imagine Brian Dennehy has been thinking of the role of James Tyrone for a long time now.
RF: Brian and I have now worked together for so long—almost 20 years on a variety of projects—this is our third O'Neill play and our fourth O'Neill production. Tyrone's always been on our minds. Working with Brian on O'Neill is like a continuation of a long dialogue. Brian was wonderful in the Chicago production, but he's even better this time around, because he knows the part better. And because you have a whole new family. Ultimately, it's about the actors living in the moment.

PBOL: What are some of the ideas you and Dennehy have about James Tyrone, the family patriarch?
RF: James Tyrone is the least educated and in many ways least sophisticated of those four family members. In a way, he is the peasant. He's a sort of simple, unpretentious, uncomplicated man. Certainly, he's a child of poverty. Like most children of poverty, he's become a miser. He's very much a man of his times, which is a 19th century Irishman. The one thing about Brian, is you can imagine him as a sort of barnstorming actor of the 1880s, a sort of barrel-chested Irish guy like the Booths or O'Neills. Someone once said to me that Brian Dennehy doesn't seem like much of a matinee idol [as the character of James Tyrone, based on O'Neill's actor father, James O'Neill, is]. Matinee idols weren't always Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Brian has always had a huge swooning contingent of ladies in the audience. Brian brings all of that to the stage.

PBOL: Willy Loman was a very physically taxing role for Dennehy. Do you think James Tyrone will be even more challenging in that way?
RF: Not at all. It is far less taxing. No comparison. Willy Loman is on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown from the moment the lights go up in Death of a Salesman. For three solid hours, Willy Loman is on stage and he's on his feet. James Tyrone...sits in a chair a lot. He's enjoying himself in his summer home. He just wants peace. The emotional volcanos of this play are really Mary Tyrone, Jamie and even Edmund. James is bit befuddled and lost by this. He doesn't understand his family. Finally he stands up to his son and reveals himself, tries to explain himself to his family. But it's nowhere near the driving intensity of Willy.

PBOL: Is this a role Vanessa Redgrave ever thought of doing before you came to her with it?
RF: I don't know. But I can tell you that one of the greatest performances I ever saw in the theatre was Vanessa doing Touch of the Poet, in which she played the wife Nora—a production at the Young Vic about 17 years ago. As I said, I made an offer a couple years ago, and she was very interested, but she had family and professional commitments for about 18 months. And when I went back to her, she basically said "Great." I always think of her as fearless. I think she lives her life on the edge. And it was interesting to meet her and see a sort of shyness, modesty, a humbleness. Not the slightest hint of a diva or a grand lady of the theatre. Much like her politics—that what I've read about—she has the common touch. Her politics are her humanity, and her humanity is such that everyone is treated the same, be it a director, producer, intern or taxi driver.

PBOL: You need a tight ensemble in this play. Have the five actors come together the way you want them to?
RF: Not yet, but I think they will. We're still in a rehearsal mode. The thing about the cast is, while all of them are leading actors and all have carried theatre shows, television and films, I'm also struck how all four have time and time again established themselves as ensemble players. There's no grandstanding or star turns.

PBOL: What is Santo Loquasto's set like?
RF: It's a highly naturalistic set. Death of a Salesman was very stylized. That was a case where I was very deliberately trying to shatter—every production of Salesman I had ever seen had that classic set that was modeled after the Jo Mielziner original. I knew I wanted to blow that up and create a play that's far more surrealistic and expressionistic. Long Day's Journey is a great play that requires the naturalism of a naturalistic set. Ultimately, it's a complete solid universe that the actors have, to the point where there are rooms on stage that are fully decorated that the audience doesn't see. We go off into a dining room that is offstage right that is a fully dressed and decorated dining room with pictures on the walls and full props, that contains china and silverware. There is a piano unseen by the audience in the piano room. I believe the play lives with the five actors. I think the director should be pretty invisible in this production.

PBOL: Have you and Dennehy started to talk about the next thing you want to do?
RF: You know, we have a sort of list and we're running out of things. It's a funny thing, years ago when we did The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman, Frank Rich came out and wrote an extraordinary review that was an appreciation of Brian. And he wrote that seeing him play Hickey makes you long to see his Macbeth, his James Tyrone, his Lear—it went on. We've sort of joked over the years that we're following Frank's recommendations. I would love to do a King Lear in an intimate setting. It would be at the Goodman.