After some rough handling from the British press during much of his first two seasons as artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey found redemption in the glowing London reviews for "A Moon for the Misbegotten." But in its transfer to Broadway, Howard Davies' production of Eugene O'Neill's majestically melancholy play about last chances for love and absolution proves uneven. . .

After some rough handling from the British press during much of his first two seasons as artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey found redemption in the glowing London reviews for “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” But in its transfer to Broadway, Howard Davies’ production of Eugene O’Neill’s majestically melancholy play about last chances for love and absolution proves uneven, its equilibrium compromised by Spacey’s showboating star turn as Jim Tyrone. He may be supplying what Broadway audiences come to see, but the actor is doing this great role a disservice.

Beyond the obvious challenge of its pronounced shift, midway, from comedy to romantic tragedy, O’Neill’s final completed play requires a delicate balance in its weighting of the two main characters and their sorrowful tug of war between past and present.

Many argue over whether the drama’s emotional center is citified Jim (based on the playwright’s alcoholic older brother, James) or Josie Hogan, the earth-mother farmer’s daughter whose unrequited love warms their moon-bathed, bourbon-soaked night of bared souls. For this lyrical, character-driven play to be fully effective, Jim’s inescapable sorrow and Josie’s wounded strength need to be invested with equal truth.

The masterful symbiosis achieved by Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in Jose Quintero’s heartbreaking 1973 Broadway revival (preserved on DVD) may never be equaled. But the imbalance here is especially regrettable given Eve Best’s stirring work as Josie.

A fixture in recent years on British stages whose credits include an Olivier-winning “Hedda Gabler” for the Almeida, the original “Coast of Utopia” at the National and Davies’ production of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the same address, Best is making a strong Broadway debut.

Lean and handsome, she’s nothing like O’Neill’s description of the character (“so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak”) or Josie’s dismissal of herself (“I’m only a big, rough, ugly cow of a woman”). But Best imbues her characterization with robust physicality and vigor, a startling absence of vanity, hearty humor and acrid self-deprecation co-existing with fierce pride and an enormous well of compassion.

A plucky sparring partner to her hard-drinking, widowed Irish father Phil (Colm Meaney) and a workhorse with the stamina of two men, Josie is playing a role of her own invention as the jaded town slut whose feelings are calloused almost to inexistence. “Brazen as brass and proud of your disgrace” is how Mike (Eugene O’Hare), the youngest of the brothers she ushers off to a better life, describes her.

But the beauty of Best’s performance is precisely its emotional transparency. Her Josie is all bluff and bravado, stomping about in an ungainly fashion as if to dispel the idea she’s a woman. We don’t need to be told this is an act; we see it whenever she gets close to Jim. Best softens visibly, her face dissolving into a gentle, incandescent smile that erases her grubby plainness so we know Jim isn’t lying when he tells her she’s beautiful. And while maintaining the facade of imperviousness, her vulnerability becomes so acute that every tiny spark of happiness or hurt plays across her face like music.

No less than his daughter, Phil is also playing a role. He orchestrates the drama’s minimal plot, hinging on the fear that Jim will evict his tenants from the farm and sell to their wealthy prig of a neighbor (Billy Carter). But while Phil ostensibly schemes to trick Jim into bedding and marrying Josie for his own gain, his motives are revealed as those of a loving father. Meaney’s spirited perf nicely captures the idea that the farmer almost has himself fooled about this duality.

Davies makes clear from the start that he has little interest in naturalism. Bob Crowley’s design sets the Hogans’ crooked, weather-beaten shack on a barren patch of dirt and rocks with telegraph poles stretching back to an empty horizon, overhung by an azure sky made unnaturally brilliant by lighting wizard Mark Henderson. Coupled with occasional strains of Ry Cooder-esque guitar, this seems more like the Oklahoma Dust Bowl than Connecticut.

The director’s heavy hand plays up the gabby first act’s farcical tone, pushing for broad work in particular from Meaney, whose facility for clowning blarney with a bullying edge is familiar from his film work. But while this approach feeds into O’Neill’s scheme of shifting by degrees into sadness, the production’s destabilization begins here.

From the moment Jim enters, Spacey gives a performance of such swaggering self-regard that it’s impossible to believe him as a man made hollow by grief and guilt. A failed Broadway actor who says of himself, “Once a ham, always a ham,” Jim’s flamboyance is essential. But without a window to his haunted soul, the character is incomplete. Spacey at no time suggests a man so despairing he wishes only to die in his sleep.

Like Cate Blanchett in “Hedda Gabler” last season, Spacey is a gifted actor with formidable technique, packing too much ego to entirely serve a complex role. And like Robards before him, Spacey has now performed O’Neill’s big three on Broadway, following “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Iceman Cometh.” But his completion of the triad is a disappointment. When he sinks into Jim’s cancerous self-disgust, there are flashes of the role’s affecting torment. But he continually undercuts the pathos by shamelessly courting the audience, too often punctuating the bleak revelations with smug line-readings colored by sardonic humor.

O’Neill’s writing in Josie and Jim’s moonlight pas de deux has such doleful grandeur that it withstands Spacey’s pyrotechnics. But the devastating outpouring of anguish in his confessional monologue about a train journey to accompany his mother’s body from California back East is diminished by all the actor’s shouting and flailing arms. A drama in which lies and protective shields dissolve to reveal the truth — leaving Jim on a fast track to doom and Josie to face the future with new self-awareness — demands honesty from its actors.

That honesty is vivid and unpolluted only in the spiritual warmth of Best as Josie cradles her wounded “child” in still-virginal arms at dawn, her tenderness enveloping the audience.

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Brooks Atkinson Theater; 1,045 seats; $102.50 top

Production

An Elliot Martin, Max Cooper, Ben Sprecher, Nica Burns, Max Weitzenhoffer, the Old Vic, Spring Sirkin, Wendy Federman, Louise Forlenza, Ian Osborne, Thomas Steven Perakos, James L. Nederlander presentation of the Old Vic Theater Company production of a play in two acts by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Howard Davies.

Crew

Set, Bob Crowley; costumes, Lynette Mauro; lighting, Mark Henderson; original music, Dominic Muldowney; sound, Christopher Shutt; sound system design, T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella; production stage manager, Bruce A. Hoover. Opened April 9, 2007. Reviewed April 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

With

Josie Hogan - Eve Best Mike Hogan - Eugene O'Hare Phil Hogan - Colm Meaney Jim Tyrone - Kevin Spacey T. Stedman Harder - Billy Carter
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