Since neither new textual revelation nor a revisionist directorial concept are in evidence, Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway-bound revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” will live or die based on how audiences and critics respond to the three actors in the fiendishly difficult central roles. It was clear on opening night at the Goodman Theater that Cherry Jones, Gabriel Byrne and Roy Dotrice are together capable of offering a whopping emotional payoff in possibly the greatest final act in American drama. But unless Sullivan elicits a consistent and connected style from his talented but currently wildly disparate trio, it will be rough going for an audience.
All three of the principal players craft performances that are valid, striking, highly competent and intriguing. But they each seem to be in a different production of the play. And “Moon for the Misbegotten” needs to be cohesively introduced to an audience that will not necessarily be familiar with this weighty and talky text.
Dotrice attacks his character, Phil Hogan, with such grizzled glee that it’s easy to forget that he is supposed to be a scheming and selfish old sod. At this point, the extroverted, funny and extraordinarily charming Dotrice thoroughly dominates his daughter, their alcoholic landlord and the entire show. Although that’s a credit to this actor’s exquisitely developed comic and dramatic technique, that’s not the way it should be.
By contrast, Byrne’s James Tyrone is at first so introverted and disconnected that he rebuffs sympathy. More the sick cynic than a ham actor clinging to a Broadway fantasy, Byrne sends Tyrone way down the path to utter darkness earlier than the script really demands. As a result, we have too few glimmers of the original personality of this booze-addled fellow. His ultimate self-destruction, therefore, is predictable.
In many ways, the beautiful, radiant Jones is an unusual casting choice for Josie Hogan, a loping, uncouth character supposedly capable of crushing most male frames (O’Neill compares her to farm animals). But Jones has bulked up for this role, and that’s not the real problem. It’s more an issue of the accessibility of her heart. Instead of sparring with her father (for whom she should be an equal match), and hiding her true feelings behind work and aggression, Jones’ Josie is an emotional dam ready to burst from the moment the curtain rises. As a result, her ultimate vulnerability is not the desperate surprise that it really needs to be.
As anyone who knows these performers might reasonably predict, Jones and Byrne are both capable of such emotional depth that the final scenes are extraordinarily powerful. As Byrne tells his horrible tale of drinking and whoring around his dead mother, good portions of the Goodman audience were fighting back tears. Surely O’Neill’s most powerful monologue, this needs no postmodern embellishment, and Byrne catches its poignancy beautifully.
And as the long sunrise is evoked with great detail and vivacity by Pat Collins’ lights, Jones’ maternal breast heaves with such palpable warmth and tenderness that it seems capable of providing solace for any ailment. It’s a rare and memorable moment of theater. “Moon for the Misbegotten” ends with such a remarkable bang that it’s a shame it doesn’t come together sooner.
There’s already a delightfully expansive setting from Eugene Lee, who beautifully evokes the instability of the Hogan homestead by surrounding it by rocks with a few patches of hopeful fertility sneaking around the corner.
Before New York, Jones needs to toughen up, and Byrne let loose, especially in the first half. Most importantly, Sullivan must now stretch this potentially rich and complex canvas over a single, cohesive frame.