PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Moon for the Misbegotten — Best Foot Forward

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Moon for the Misbegotten — Best Foot Forward
Eve Best bolted onto Broadway April 9 like a hungry cougar hunting for fresh prey, flying through the screen door of the highly stylized ramshackle shack Bob Crowley had devised for A Moon for the Misbegotten and planting herself solidly on the Brooks Atkinson stage, giving no ground and taking no prisoners for two hours and 50 minutes.

There was no welcoming applause from the audience for this bold entrance, but by evening's end every manjack of them was standing, cheering the arrival of a full-blown star. (She apparently got her act together out of town — in London where she's been raking in awards since '99. Indeed, she was up for an Olivier in February for this very portrayal.)

She's rough-hewn Josie Hogan, the pig-farmer's daughter — hardly the "great ugly cow of a girl" that Eugene O'Neill envisioned — but acted in a way that will convince you that your eyes are deceiving you. With the blunt, graceless swagger of someone who has been brought up on a farm, she walks the tightrope of madonna/whore — her mission in the play to administer tender mercies to a broken-down, boozed-up Broadway actor, Jim Tyrone Jr., during a long, heart-wrenching evening of shared secrets and spilled bonded bourbon.

This production is also a best foot forward for the "new" Old Vic and its artistic director, Kevin Spacey, who sensibly as well as chivalrously takes second billing to Best. With the blessing of Actors' Equity, the whole five-member cast made the jump across the pond — including the also-Olivier-nominated Colm Meaney as Josie's crafty pa and an actor born to play Eugene O'Neill, Eugene O'Hare, as another of the Hogan clan.

O'Neill aficionado Howard Davies, who directed Spacey in The Iceman Cometh and Best in Mourning Becomes Electra, supervised the Broadway transfer right up until the weekend when he had to return to London to start up rehearsals for another play.

First-nighters broke in a brand-new opening-night party site, named for its address: 230 Fifth Avenue (at 27th Street). The restaurant, on the 20th floor, was a chairless affair, done in low-slung, black-velvet sofas that required eating with a plate in your lap. Elegant if joint-wrenching. One floor up was an observation deck that offered spectacular views of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, both lighting up the night sky. Red robes were provided for those adventurous enough to brave the beyond-blustery night air. Best arrived still reeling from the rigors of the play and the pressure of opening night and couldn't quite assess her feelings about her hour-old Broadway beachhead. "It hasn't really sunk in yet, to be honest," she confessed in that cheery British manner. "It's all a bit overwhelming. Wonderful. But also a bit speechless, as you can tell. I'm really excited to be here, and I feel very lucky to be here as well. I'm really thrilled we all made it here."

To separate her Moons and give herself a little breather from O'Neill, she managed to squeeze in a little Shakespeare back in London, wrapping As You Like It just three days before she flew to New York for rehearsals. She chose to do the comedy to give herself something to think about other than Broadway. "The minute I started thinking too much about Broadway, I would know I had completely forgotten about doing As You Like It."

Her Broadway debut could be called the Americanization of Emily since that is what everyone seems to be calling her offstage. "My real name is Emily, and Eve is my grandmother's middle name," she explained. "I had to change it because there was another actress named Emily Best. I wanted to change my second name, but there were already so many Emilys all the names I wanted to choose to go with it had been taken."

Spacey was more wired than wiped out by the O'Neill ordeal. "I'm not exhausted — I'm loving it," he exclaimed. "We were supposed to have our opening Sunday, but we then decided it was Easter and probably not a good idea, so we moved it to today. Tomorrow's our first day off since last Monday. We've done nine in a row, going like a house afire."

He admitted to being a bit glassy-eyed at the curtain call. "The play is an emotional play, and it does get to you. And the truth is: opening nights are emotional. It's a big thing to finally open this play and to share it with an American audience and to have all your friends and family and colleagues here as well. It's a milestone for us at the Old Vic, bringing our first play to New York, and it's certainly not going to the last we bring here."

Actually, the first handiwork of his three-year regime at the Old Vic surfaced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music just before the rising of this MoonEdward Hall's rep spin of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. It went down so well, Spacey said, there will be more where it came from. "We just announced The Bridge Project — Sam Mendes directing six plays over the next three years in rep, starting at BAM and going to the Old Vic so we have a permanent presence in New York at BAM. It's a fantastic relationship."

Half of Spacey's Broadway career has been spent at the Brooks Atkinson. He began there as Liv Ullmann's son in Ibsen's Ghosts in 1982, and it was there that labored with some Tony-nominated distinction as Hickey in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. "It does feel like home," he readily admitted. "Acoustically, it's very different from the Old Vic, but you adjust to that. [The stage] doesn't have the depth the Old Vic has. We had about 25 feet beyond the [Hogan] shack, so we made these loooooong entrances in London that have become very truncated here. The stage is wider so it takes a little longer to get to the chair and to the fountain, but you make those minor technical adjustments and the rest of it is about the emotional life that these characters are experiencing. For us, it's like getting back on the horse."

He will be posting the upcoming season at the Old Vic next month, and he expects to be on the boards again in January (not in an O'Neill play). He managed to squeeze in a flick between Moons. "I finished it weeks ago. It's called '21,' and it's based on a true story about a group of M.I.T. students who learned the art of card-counting at the game of blackjack and went to Vegas and made millions of dollars on their weekends. I play the professor who teaches them how to count, and I'm producing it with Sony Pictures."

Moon is Meaney's first Broadway appearance in 20 years — since he co-starred with Derek Jacobi in Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code — and his first New York appearance since he played the doctor role that won Michael Caine an Oscar in a play whose title escaped us both [it was "The Cider House Rules," the stage version of which played at Atlantic Theater Company]. The always-reliable film actor is perhaps best-remembered as the Presley-worshipping Dublin patriarch in "The Commitments."

"The last Moon for the Misbegotten I saw was in the '80s here in New York with Ian Bannen and Kate Nelligan," he said. "I think it contains some of O'Neill's best writing. The characters are very rich, deep — and the great thing is that they (as people do) don't mean what they say a lot of the time. What they're actually saying is not really what they mean — there's something else going on all the time — and it's wonderful to play that."

Meaney mines a lot of welcomed laughs out of his cagey old tenant farmer. "We didn't get too many of them tonight," he allowed. "It was a very non-laughing audience tonight. But, over the course of previews, there's frequently quite a bit of laughing going on."

Veteran Elliot Martin is returning to the Broadway-producing with this show, his first since the one-night run of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All in 2003. Of the five Moons that have shined on Broadway, Martin will now have produced three — including the last one with Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne in 2000 and the definitive one with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards (an extraordinary revival that eclipsed the original 1957 Moon, which Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone did for a scant 68 performances).

"Jason was 41 and Colleen was 51 when they did it, but it worked beautifully," he recalled. "She was a real earth-mother. She had no sexuality involved in her performance. She was just a motherly soul — probably, that's the closest to O'Neill's image of that character. I liked what Cherry did, and Gabriel played it like a romantic rather than getting to the guts of Jim's terrible angst and memories of his life as an alcoholic. Jason got that, and Kevin understands it totally. Kevin understands addiction. He's amazing."

Martin's life in the theatre began on the other side of the footlights — in the chorus of the original Oklahoma! — and he met his wife, Marjorie Weston, with that gig. "This was my first job in New York. Four weeks after I arrived in New York, I got the job to go to London in Oklahoma!. I took tap-dance lessons there and understudied Lee Dixon in the Will Parker role. Never went on. The fact I never did probably drove me in producing."

Neil Simon and his wife, Elaine (Sugar) Joyce headed the list of opening-night celebrities in attendance. One of his ex-wives — the one for whom he wrote three Oscar-nominated performances — was around as well: Marsha Mason. He was there as a charter member of the Kevin Spacey Fan Club (each won a Tony for their 1991 teamwork, "Lost in Yonkers").

Another couple present: Juliet Mills of TV's "Passions," and Maxwell Caulfield enjoying his night off from Manhattan Theatre Club where he is giving a terrific performance of Harry Hawk in Charles Busch's hysterical historical, Our Leading Lady.

"The shoe leather finally broke in," he said, "and the play has settled in." This is the third play in a row he has done here. "I probably won't end up on The Great White Way until I'm with Herself" — he gestured to the missus — "hanging on to her petticoats." She smiled and said, "We want to work together. We don't know what. We're looking at things though." Chandler Williams, who did such a sensitive job as the doomed young British soldier in Ireland in the Manhattan Theatre Club Translations that closed a couple of weeks ago at the Biltmore, was accused of checking out his Tony competition (meaning Meaney), and he didn't bother to deny it: "Absolutely. I'm going to get that club she had on stage and take out one of his knees." In truth, he confessed a genuine love of the play. "I only know it from the tape Jason and Colleen did, but I've got it memorized. I love them so much." Spacey has steadfastly refused to see that tape — for fear of "artistic thievery" — but, as soon as he finishes this engagement, he'll consider caving. "I might eventually see it," he said.

Sharing the same publicist as Spacey got Aaron Eckhart opening-night seats for him and his date, Ashley Wick. Very hot after the success of his sleeper film comedy, "Thank You for Smoking," he just happened to be in town doing publicity for "No Reservations," his new movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones. "We play chefs in the movie so I'm going to do the cooking shows tomorrow — Rachael Ray and all that."

Any stage work coming up? "I'm booked all the way into next year, but maybe after that I'd love to come to New York and do a play. In fact, I asked Neil LaBute to write me a play for next year." (Just the man to place his order with: LaBute introduced Eckhart to the world as the archetypal brutish Neil LaBute male in "In the Company of Men.")

Another Spacey bud, Matt Dillon, ducked the stage question. "I'd like to, but there's always the seduction of film," he confessed candidly. "I'm here to support Kevin, and it's always great to see any production of O'Neill — for me. I don't care how long it is."

Michael Dansicker, who made his Broadway debut as a musical director on the same show that marked Davies' debut as a director (1981's Piaf with a Tony-winning Jane Lapotaire), has written his own songs for a biography of the late child actor Bobby Driscoll, called Shooting Star (as in syringe). "We're shooting for a long-delayed reading this summer since Twyla Tharp and Bob Dylan are no longer in my life." (He worked on The Times They Are A-Changin' and has the scars to prove it.) "We introduced one of the songs from the show last week at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts' salute to Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft and Gena Rowlands. An actor named Mark Price, who was in All Shook Up and is currently in Mary Poppins, did the show's big number, which is called 'An Actor,' and the response from the audience was just incredible."

Since the next show on Moon producer Ben Sprecher's agenda is Prairie, the musical version of the book and TV series "Little House on the Prairie," he invited to the opening some of the key players who are together for a workshop next week in New York — to name Names: Melissa Gilbert, who grew up on the show and now can play the mommy, and Patrick Swayze, switching from "Dirty Dancing" to square dancing. With songs by Rachel Portman and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning Beth Henley, the show has been developed for the past two years by opera director Francesca Zambello, who'll open a new window in July by world-premiering The Little Mermaid in Denver for Disney.

Haley Joel Osment, a Spacey fan since they filmed "Pay It Forward," came over from NYU where "The Sixth Sense" Oscar nominee majors in drama.

The company of <i>A Moon for the Misbegotten</i> takes its opening night bows.
The company of A Moon for the Misbegotten takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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