Flemish director Ivo van Hove's stylized deconstruction finishes Eugene O'Neill's "More Stately Mansions" in more ways than one. Rarely produced --- the wise playwright himself wanted a rough-draft manuscript destroyed upon his death --- O'Neill's wearying psychodrama virtually defies a straightforward, naturalistic staging, and van Hove's performance-art approach pretty much closes the mansion doors on traditional interpretation (or appreciation) of this play. And after 3 hours of minor O'Neill reconceived as Scandinavian avant-gardism, only the most ardent of O'Neill scholars will care to ever revisit "Mansions." Van Hove and his game, inexhaustible cast find moments of inspired theatricality in the sexually wrought mind games at the center of this apparently autobiographical family saga, but all the shoehorned irony and choreographed posing can lend only a surface modernity to the tired, endless exposition of Freudian psychobabble and crude plot mechanics.

Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s stylized deconstruction finishes Eugene O’Neill’s “More Stately Mansions” in more ways than one. Rarely produced — the wise playwright himself wanted a rough-draft manuscript destroyed upon his death — O’Neill’s wearying psychodrama virtually defies a straightforward, naturalistic staging, and van Hove’s performance-art approach pretty much closes the mansion doors on traditional interpretation (or appreciation) of this play.

And after 3 hours of minor O’Neill reconceived as Scandinavian avant-gardism, only the most ardent of O’Neill scholars will care to ever revisit “Mansions.” Van Hove and his game, inexhaustible cast find moments of inspired theatricality in the sexually wrought mind games at the center of this apparently autobiographical family saga, but all the shoehorned irony and choreographed posing can lend only a surface modernity to the tired, endless exposition of Freudian psychobabble and crude plot mechanics.

Lengthy internal monologues recited at a comically breakneck pace, dialogue often shrieked at jackhammer decibels and a maniacally athletic nude sex scene (well, almost nude: the man wears black socks) performed like something from professional wrestling suggest that this production is as much an examination (sometimes even a parody) of O’Neill trademarks as it is a presentation of an O’Neill play. And a chilly, clinical examination it is, the barrage of calculated histrionics notwithstanding.

The history of “More Stately Mansions” is perhaps of greater interest than the play itself, the unfinished draft (along with O’Neill’s note to destroy it) discovered in a box at Yale in 1951. Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater pared down the rambling manuscript to something resembling a play, but infrequent productions (including a 1967 Broadway version) have usually been met with underwhelming reception. Van Hove’s 1994 staging in Amsterdam proved both a critical and popular exception.

It’s doubtful the production will repeat that success here, with Stateside audiences likely to find van Hove’s indulgences gratingly pretentious and too spot-on obvious (a childish argument is rendered in baby-talk, and later the emotionally immature male character takes baby steps, literally, into manhood).

The play itself comes across as an exposition-heavy outline of its characters’ psychologies, with plot and literary finesse still a draft or two (or three) away. Set in 19th-century Massachusetts (no indication of time or place is provided in Jan Versweyveld’s spare, abstract production design), “Mansions” chronicles the brutal familial triangle of a man, Simon Harford (Tim Hopper), his emasculating mother, Deborah (Joan MacIntosh), and emotionally demanding wife, Sara (Jenny Bacon). Mother and wife argue, scheme and beg in the eternal battle for Simon’s heart, reducing the man to a mewling, near-mad Oedipal wreck.

Each of the three characters (along with several minor players) plots, plans and bellows on the mostly bare stage or watches from the sidelines when not taking part. More archetypes than characters, husband and wife are dressed simply (he in a business suit, she in a plain black dress), while mother appears as some fiendish harpy in kabuki makeup and tall, white platform shoes — footware that was doubly cruel given actress MacIntosh’s bandaged, obviously sprained ankle. Limping precariously at the reviewed performance, the talented actress embodied the go-for-broke eccentricity of the production.

Directed to play the wife at a nearly unbroken pitch of sputtering rage, Bacon can’t help but seem wildly out of control, her uncanny resemblance to actress Cherry Jones not matched (at least in this perf) by that actress’s texture and grace. Hopper, as the psychically castrated son-husband, is forced into some incredibly silly business — those baby steps and black socks not the least — but does maintain some dignity.

After all, he’s had practice: Having exposed himself in last season’s Broadway production of “Present Laughter,” Hopper might be the only actor ever called upon to interpret both O’Neill and Noel Coward with full-frontal nudity. He displays, among other things, a dedication not especially merited by the production.

More Stately Mansions

Opened Oct. 7, 1997, at the New York Theater Workshop. Reviewed Oct. 6; 150 seats; $ 28 top.

Production

New York: A New York Theater Workshop presentation of a play in three acts by Eugene O'Neill, adapted from an unfinished manuscript by Karl Ragnar Gierow. Directed by Ivo van Hove.

Creative

Production design, Jan Versweyveld; sound, Red Ramona; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Running time: 3 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Tim Hopper (Simon Harford), Jenny Bacon (Sara Harford), Joan MacIntosh (Deborah Harford), Robert Petkoff (Joel Harford), Joel M. Rooks (Nicholas Gadsby), Ben Hammer (Benjamin Tenard).
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