“The Father” Is Now
To “A Long Day’s
Journey Into Night”
by TONY VELLELA
Give the man some credit. This remark is directed at those who feel the need to complain about the length of Eugene O’Neill’s stunning masterwork “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The entire premise, the oppressive nature of this family having to face yet another seemingly endless ordeal of having to witness the slow drip-drip deterioration of their mother’s exasperating dependence on morphine, the whole point is that it stretches out over hours and hours and hours of repetitive patterns that none of them can seem to prevent. It IS a very long day. And for the audience to comprehend fully the nature of these events requires that they are made to endure the tedium and heartbreak of watching it unfold – yet again. That’s the reason it stretches out as it does. LONG day – get it? Duh!
What unfolds in this revival at the American Airlines Theatre is another sepia-tinged snapshot of the Tyrone family on one August day/night in 1912, in the living room of their summer house. The large windows look out over the yard, and farther away, the ocean. James, a semi-retired classical actor who prides himself on his thriftiness, which created the sorry condition both his wife Mary, and his younger son Edmund, find themselves in. Because James refused to engage the best doctors to treat them, at different times, Edmund’s persistent cough has progressed to ‘consumption,’ [tuberculosis] and Mary’s inability to cope with the death of an infant son led to a prescription for morphine, and a dependence on it, which, these many years later, she cannot seem to quit. The older son, James, Jr., takes his refuge in drink.
Gabriel Byrne’s James Sr. manages to hold down any showiness that others often impose on the once-celebrated actor, bringing it all up from time to time, when he feels he must remind his family of his prominence in the American theatre. James, Jr. [Michael Shannon], exhibits true restraint in his attempts to shield his younger brother from the various onslaughts that jab at the sick boy’s weakened physical and mental conditions. And as Edmund, the meticulous John Gallagher, Jr., aided no doubt by Jonathan Kent’s thoughtful direction, manages to keep his distance, whenever possible, from his parents, seemingly to create an artificial chasm that prevents them from overtaking his very existence. In a nod to the father’s tightwad ways, costume designer Jane Greenwood has given Edmund a worn-through hole in the sole of his shoe. Other designers have also made great attempts to reproduce the closed world of the Tyrones – the living room here from Tom Pye sprawls far more than the actual room in the Monte Cristo cottage in New London, Connecticut where the real O’Neills spent their summer months. And while it allows for more ‘playing’ area, more space for the director to move his actors around, it removes the sense of confinement and enclosure that can add another oppressive element to the proceedings. Slate grey walls give designer Greenwood just the right background palette for her actors’ browns and greys to fade into – she has eschewed all traces of reds, oranges, yellows or even stark whites to maintain the perfect environment for this wearisome tale. Pye has blanketed the shelves with well-worn copies of the classics, likely the ones aspiring writer Tom, a generation later, would love to have had in the shabby Wingfield St. Louis apartment.
The power of the play is its balance between the forced fiction that this is just another day for just another family, in their seaside summer home, and the impending doom that will soon befall mother and younger son. And it is in the presentation of these two roles that any production of this play stands or falls. In this instance, it’s a draw.
Gallagher has already proven his skills in giving the characters he inhabits the detailed particulars that define any living person’s persona. Here, his Edmund valiantly tries to mute the intrusion of his vicious coughing, to keep attention away from what is clearly a great and growing problem. Edmund, an aspiring poet who battles, every waking moment, with the terrifying reality that his life may be cut mercilessly short, can display the soul of an artist quite naturally, a sensitive nature that moderates the inner rage that would sear any soul staring death coldly in the face. Gallagher seems to get all of it, in the right proportions.
And a good word must be spoken on behalf of Colby Minifie, in the usually thankless role of the maid, Cathleen. Too often, she is played as a silly, almost cartoonish Irish immigrant girl, with little depth, but Minifie gives us a young woman who seems genuinely enthralled with the fascinating details of her mistress’s life, grateful for the precious moments Mary shares with her, and equally unsettled by the stark outbursts from Mary, when the drug takes over.
And then there’s our Mary, a role that most serious actors have sought to tackle, with Katharine Hepburn’s mesmerizing version captured in the 1962 picture, directed so masterfully by Sidney Lumet. This time, it’s two-time Oscar-winner Jessica Lange’s crack at it. Several seasons back, Lange took on another iconic female role – Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The results there, and here, share many of the same outcomes.
Ms. Lange can always be counted on to immerse herself in the details of her character, the why’s and when’s and where’s of the woman. Here, her Mary Tyrone shows us the flitting, flicker-y movements of her shaky hands, never able to settle comfortably in her lap. Her repetitious recitals of the dismissals that she still has the morphine addiction have the ring, not of the objections put forth by a woman who seeks to dispel the concerns of her family, but the false ring of practiced speech. This is Ms. Lange performing Mary, rather than inhabiting her.
And then there’s the return of, what some refer to as ‘the cackle.’ However uncharitable it may sound, Ms. Lange has developed a distracting habit of tacking on, to the end of many of her speeches and pronouncements, a kind of cackling half-laugh, that sounds like the character minimizing the truth or impact of what she’s just stated. It becomes a kind of verbal coda, leaving the impression that what was just stated can be put aside.
This is a production that benefits greatly from two facts from Byrne’s career: his impressive Dublin years doing Ibsen, Wilde, O’Casey and Chekhov, followed by years at London’s Royal Court and National Theatre, and secondly, playing the younger Jamie Tyrone in O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” All these experiences have given us a portrayal of the man who became this flawed, conflicted celebrated professional actor, and this flawed father, never able to shake off the demons of his own past.
A different, yet equally compelling father figure lives, or more rightly, survives, at the center of Florian Zeller’s new play “The Father,” now at MTC’s Friedman Theatre, and which, in my mind, is the Best Play of this season. As so many others have observed, the topic – the onslaught of dementia – has crept into the public consciousness and the popular culture, including the touching Oscar-winning portrayal by Julianne Moore in last year’s “Still Alice.” This may be the result of the Baby Boomer cohort moving through the population curve, one of its [our] last major societal influences.
And as the cohort has done in so many other ways throughout the previous decades, the impact is unique, thanks to French novelist Zeller’s comfort level with his attack. . . there is no outwardly-directed venom or anger, per se . . . just the observations. As Andre, a retired gentleman living in a tastefully-appointed Paris apartment, Frank Langella presents as a healthy, engaging father to his caring daughter Anne [in a gentle, caring portrayal by Kathryn Erbe], visiting him with chit-chat domestic news. After the lights go out ever so temporarily, Andre picks up a similar domestic conversation with another young woman [Hannah Cabell], whose responses create some confusion – is THIS the real Anne? Why does she call herself Laura? And throughout the play, Andre’s mis-identifications proliferate, as his son-in-law claims to live where Andre does, and other pairs of people claim the same name, and the same ‘place’ in Andre’s life. At one moment of levity, Andre reveals to the woman visiting him that he had a career as a tap-dancer, and rises, clad in pajamas and house slippers, to demonstrate a fairly decent time-step. She assures him that his now-past career was in engineering. And as the ‘facts’ meld and shift, as the ‘parts’ of his memory are shed, just like last week’s fresh-cut flowers involuntarily shed their petals, so, too, do the furnishings big and small, also disappear. After similar brief blackouts [blamed on a faulty fuse in the off-stage kitchen, being tended to by a repairman, or is that his son-in-law?], the wall painting goes away, joined in its disappearing act by that imposing lamp, and then . . . what’s to be next? The most persistent vagrant is Andre’s prized wrist watch, which he claims has been [re]moved without his knowledge or permission, only to be [re]located in a special hiding place for valuables, behind the microwave.
What Zeller has done, expertly, is ease us into Andre’s POV. What Zeller has identified, in his ever-so-smoothly penned playscript carefully translated from the French, by Christopher Hampton, and just as carefully directed by Doug Hughes, is a commentary on theft, on identity itself – is this person that person? Has some someone ‘stolen’ the other person? What Andre must try to cope with is the most lacerating loss anyone may have to confront. The match-up of actor to character could not be more compelling, because in appearance, Langella, now 78 years old but as agile and imposing as any leading man half his age, Andre appears to be in full ‘possession’ of ‘his faculties,’ as the medical, psychological, legal communities might classify. Because, after all, what does anyone possess that could be stolen, what possessions? It is our memories. And because memory is so blatantly personal, it represents the one component of our living lives that cannot be replaced. Once again, here is a playwright who has so aptly titled his work. The one ‘label’ still firmly attached to Andre is ‘father.’ He is Anne’s father. And when that label is called into question, what is left of that man? What accounts for the sweep of terror that overtakes his face? Has Andre been forced to add a question mark after the title = “The Father?”
A few short blocks away, an actor who has become part of the national television audience’s collection of beloved characters in ABC’s runaway comedy hit “Modern Family” returns to his roots, the New York stage, in a piece that gives him the opportunity to create forth [40!] characters, in the challenging piece “Fully Committed.” Jesse Tyler Ferguson catapulted to the top of the list of versatile, affecting actors in his endearing turn as an addled child contestant in the 2005 Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The ‘anchor’ character in Derek McLane’s single-set basement area office space, in this solo comedy by Becky Mode and Mark Setlock, and helmed by Ms. Mode, is Sam. His day job [like half of Manhattan, his ‘real’ profession is acting] has him juggling calls as the overwhelmed reservationist at a restaurant the authors describe as “world-renowned,” and “ridiculously red-hot.” The must-be type of place egoist Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” obsesses over.
And obsession, in the most intensely positive manner, is a word that can be applied to Ferguson, who here exercises his devotion to the craft of acting. One by one by another one, the calls come in, starting at 10 A.M. plus one second. They run the garrulous gamut, the list encompassing the demandingly ever-accommodated [she infers forcefully] socialite, a oxygen-sucking French maitre d’ and the currently installed personal assistant to Gwyneth Paltrow, who ‘requires’ a table for 15 on Saturday – THIS Saturday, despite the three-months out standard rule for booking tables – that must include a menu with no legumes and no female wait staff. What the authors have done here, so cleverly, is stitch together more than three dozen distinct personalities, many conveyed within a matter of three dozen words.
And what this production provides is a demonstration of what Ferguson does so stunningly well. One may assume this represents a preponderance of audio accomplishments – how do all these people SOUND? Could this be a radio play?
Ferguson makes it an in-person, on stage solo piece, because his demanding clientele, and also family and friends, are shown as well as told. Ferguson can also switch from haughty to imperious to pleading using facial expressions and body gestures – a slap of the desk top signals a new person. This is the same type of tour-de-force performance that won James Cordon a Tony Award for his dexterity in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” and has echoes of other practitioners of this rarely-achieved art form, the solo performance involving a variety of characters, actors such as Ruth Draper and Lily Tomlin. Your ticket invites you to see not one performance – but forty.
Another tale of lost identity, “Harper Regan,” from playwright Simon Stephens [“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”] features Maeve Yore, directed by Terry Schreiber, in the title role of what happens when a woman leaves home and family in working-class London and loses herself. This compelling new piece arrives here from the British production, and has landed at the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, 151 West 26th Street, running until June 1 . . . get a jump on the anticipated buzz for “Nix,” which could be described as “Hamlet” meets Erin Brockovich. Petra is a single war widow with kids to raise, who must resort to hauling away waste water from fracking wells, and she uncovers irregularities connected with the disappearance of an engineer ready to blow the whistle when he mysteriously goes missing. Filling the venue with the sounds of rock, Latin and rap music, it springs to life with script, lyrics and direction by Katherine Brann Fredricks and music by Massimo Malassi, and runs from June 13 through July 10 at the Planet Factory, 64 East 4th Street. Details at Planetconnections.org . . . and a reminder: the always dazzling Marin Mazie is now teaching the children at the Vivian Beaumont’s production of “The King and I.”
Speaking of multiple identities, no actor has amassed a resume overflowing with the extensive varieties of characters brought to life with such specificity than the much-heralded [and richly deserved] Meryl Streep, whose roots are in theatre. If you were among the dozens of rain-soaked theatre-lovers who witnessed her brave depiction in the title role of “Mother Courage” at the outdoor Shakespeare production in Central Park a few summers ago, you collected a memory one hopes will always be with you. And for some insight into how this remarkable actor grew from teen to today, Michael Schulman’s “Her Again – Becoming Meryl Streep,” from HarperCollins, tells many tales, beautifully . . . and let’s say you are a devotee of theatre and are about to graduate from high school or college or university or dancing class or wherever, tell a couple of people to pitch in to give you a stunning graduation present: “Hamilton – The Revolution,” written and compiled by Lin-Manuel Miranda [does this man never sleep?] and Jeremy McCarter. It plots the discovery of the Revolutionary maker-and-shaker, cramming it with many dozens of color photos, annotated explanations of the lyrics and running commentary for the piece tagged with the already-bestowed designation of ‘classic.’ It’s a prize.
TONY VELLELA is the author of the play “Admissions,” published by Playscripts, and winner of the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival. His play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre,” is published by ArtAge. He wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.” He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister” and What We Don’t Confess.” His performing arts pieces have run in Parade, Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Reader’s Digest and dozens of other publications, during this forty-year journalism career. He has also written three books. He has taught theatre classes at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University, and several other colleges, universities and learning institutions. His new play “Labor Days” is in-pre-production.
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