Broadway’s new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” offers reason to celebrate, but also much to mourn. The good news is very good indeed: Making his New York stage debut, Gabriel Byrne gives a devastatingly beautiful performance as James Tyrone Jr., the booze-addled drifter who stalks this late O’Neill masterwork like a wraith. But the bad is almost as bad: As the woman in whose arms he finds a brief refuge from the self-hatred that flows as freely as liquor in his veins, Cherry Jones, a great treasure of the New York theater, comes inexplicably, unbelievably to grief.
From the moment Byrne shuffles onstage, wearing a rumpled brown suit like a husk, his Jim Tyrone perfectly embodies the aching soul of the play. The character was closely modeled on O’Neill’s alcoholic brother, and his wrenching second-act confession — a pathetic tale of misbehavior upon his mother’s death — is a transcription of real events from James O’Neill Jr.’s life. The play is O’Neill’s offer of absolution to a beloved but wayward brother, and it glows with a quiet, almost religious feeling of mercy and benediction.
Byrne’s Jim Tyrone moves with the gentle steps of a man with a lifetime hangover and, as he trades barbs with Josie Hogan (Jones) and her humorously cantankerous father Phil (Roy Dotrice), his voice has a cracked quality, his eyes a vacant but tender glassiness. In various ways, Byrne subtly conveys the idea that Jim is a man whose heart and soul are no less ravaged than his liver; just on the cusp of middle age, he looks to be at death’s door.
Josie and Phil are dirt-poor tenant farmers living on land inherited by Jim from his actor father (the Tyrones are the family from O’Neill’s similarly autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”). A sometime actor, Jim has apparently returned from his usual haunts in the lower depths of Broadway to arrange details of his father’s will. His arrival raises Phil’s fearful suspicion that Jim will oust them from the farm, on which back rent is long overdue. This question provides the play’s laundry line of a plot, on which O’Neill hangs some of his richest comedy as well as his most numinously affecting poetry.
In fact, Jim hasn’t come for any worldly reasons, but to rest his head and heart on the breast of Josie, the one woman whose goodness, he believes, can assuage his feelings of unworthiness. Josie is deeply in love with Jim, and has put a brave face on a lonely life by pretending to wantonness — mocking her own homeliness, but aping the lascivious tarts that Jim can’t keep away from. The heart of the play is the long, liquor-soaked scene between Josie and Jim in which he finds the courage to confess his deepest shame and ask for forgiveness for his transgressions from a surrogate mother, Josie. Beneath the benevolent glow of a full moon, Josie blesses and forgives him, even as she realizes that it means her own hopes for a deeper, lasting love that would truly unite them can never be.
A hush descends upon the theater in this exquisitely written scene, broken only by sobs of sympathy erupting from the audience. The laughter that rolled freely through the ripely comic first act, thanks to Dotrice’s antic, sensationally funny turn as the wily Phil, is all but forgotten. Cradled in Jones’ arms, Byrne delivers Jim’s aria of grief and guilt and self-disgust with breathtaking emotional transparency, his sins seeming to flash vividly before his glittering eyes. It’s a speech that descends to the soul’s darkest places, and a false note or stagy gesture can be disastrous. Byrne rises to its challenges magnificently.
Jones has a soft, self-effacing sympathy in this scene as Josie quietly embraces Jim’s emotional upheavals. But a vital quality of tender grace, of spiritual power, is missing from most of her performance, which must qualify as the saddest, most surprising disappointment of the theater season. What can have happened? It’s impossible to believe that Jones, a luminous presence in previous productions, doesn’t have the capacity to find and transmit the towering humanity of this rich character.
Perhaps the fault lies with Jones and director Daniel Sullivan’s conception of the character. Or perhaps Jones was daunted by the pressure of stepping into a role so powerfully associated with a revered predecessor (Colleen Dewhurst, of whom Jones has often spoken with admiration). Whatever the cause, she gives a surprisingly constricted, dry performance that imbalances the production and breaks your heart in all the wrong ways.
She accentuates the most superficial aspects of Josie’s character — her feigned, truculent toughness, a cantankerousness inherited from her father — without sufficiently communicating the presence of the deeply loving woman beneath the tough hide. Jones’ Josie is all weather-beaten surface, hectoring her father with little of the tongue-in-cheek humor that would soften the exchanges, or harshly belittling herself without hinting at the deep insecurity underneath. There’s little warmth in the performance, and the result is a vital energy lacking in the production as a whole.
There is also something mildly askew about Eugene Lee’s studiously realistic set, which is perfect for the gritty comedy of the play’s first half but all wrong for the poetic magic of the second. Dotrice, however, nimbly and touchingly makes the transition from cranky cutup in the first act to deeply loving father in the second.
While hardly misbegotten, then, this “Moon” is nonetheless not what it might have been and should have been. Byrne’s fierce, wounding performance as Jim Tyrone will not soon be forgotten, but it will haunt the memory with a companion, the ghost of the performance one had hoped for from Cherry Jones, a great actress here working at less than her best. Even the most incandescent of moons, it seems, can sometimes be eclipsed.