It might be incongruous in 1865, but Jena Malone’s haircut in “Mourning Becomes Electra” is super-cute. Love the Jean Seberg pixie crop on her, and the bed-head look is adorably offset by those severe, belted black monastic outfits. Oh, and Jason Lyons’ sepulchral lighting is just the right funereal cloak for designer Derek McLane’s minimalist mausoleum aesthetic. Those are the chief points of interest and the most visible signs that some — any — thought went into this inert revival of Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 “Oresteia” update, a production so static and misdirected you start glancing around half-expecting the audience to mutiny.
Due mainly to its daunting bulk and heavy-handed fixation on elementary Freudian psychology, O’Neill’s trilogy about the inexorable fate of a New England family branded by murder, adultery, fear, hatred and revenge is seldom seen these days. Its most recent major production in the U.S. was Gordon Edelstein’s 2002 staging at Seattle’s ACT and Long Wharf, with a cast headed by Jane Alexander and Mireille Enos. London audiences saw a reportedly more majestic revival the following year, with Howard Davies directing Helen Mirren and Eve Best at the National.
So this should be a welcome opportunity for New Yorkers to see an important mid-career work by the founding father of great American drama. But the project is a perplexing choice for Scott Elliott and the New Group. Neither director nor company has shown any particular affinity for period drama — or for Greek tragedy, which this essentially still is, albeit in American post-Civil War clothing.
Originally running close to six hours, the cycle is now usually performed in a pared-down, single-play version. Even in that abridged form, making it work requires an all-encompassing embrace of mythic grandeur, melodramatic torment and searing naturalism. Elliott’s toothless attack approaches the play mechanically rather than emotively, making an unconvincing case for its durability. All text and no texture, this is a dispiritingly tentative production. And despite frequent clutching at trousers and skirts, with characters straddling each other and writhing around on the floor, it’s oddly sexless.
Aeschylus-via-O’Neill’s archetypes of perverted family love are reduced here to flatly contemporary telenovela figures, largely stripped of the repressive snobbery and gossipy small-mindedness of 19th-century New England that no doubt add life to the canvas in less pedestrian productions.
In the Clytemnestra role, jittery cougar Christine Mannon (Lili Taylor) is getting it on with soulful sailor Adam Brant (Anson Mount), while dreading the return from war of husband Ezra (Mark Blum). Unlike his counterpart Agamemnon, Ezra has made no sacrifice to the gods to earn Christine’s venom; he’s just a stolid bore who fills her with disgust. Their daughter Lavinia (Malone) loves Dad a little too fervently, fueling her Electra-like quest for vengeance when Mom switches his heart medicine for a deadly potion. And yikes, here comes wounded Orin (Joseph Cross) home from the front, confused by his hatred for Dad, conflicting passion for Mom and doltish loyalty to scheming Vinnie, whom he also finds kind of hot.
Elliott lets the first act, “Homecoming,” bog down fatally in exposition, and miscasting further hobbles the production.
Taylor can be compelling playing dreamy neurotics with a brittle edge, but she’s an undersize fit for Christine’s malevolent authority. Striding around the stage in a puke-green dress that’s the sole splash of color in costumer Susan Hilferty’s palette, Taylor conveys little of the required relish in Christine’s wickedness or her unrepentant lust. She mostly just seems fretful, bitter and crucially lacking in the self-awareness that should be central to such a ruthless and decisive woman.
Malone does her best sullen, uninflected Winona Ryder for the first two acts, until uptight Vinnie transforms into wanton Mom, donning the green number, sucking on cigarettes and hissing scorn to signal her liberation. But while mourning really does become Electra and she’s a lot more fun to be around, Malone is like the very committed girl in the high school drama club production.
If Elliott wanted to slap some contemporary attitude on a mother-daughter pair of murderous, rivalrous bitches, he should have looked to Polly Walker and Kerry Condon’s lipsmacking work in HBO’s juicy, too-short-lived series “Rome” as a model.
Doing a febrile John C. Reilly thing, Cross seems pretty unhinged from the moment whiny, PTSD-afflicted Orin returns, giving him scant trajectory to play. But he has a persuasive moment or two in which the Orestes stand-in attempts to cleanse himself by chronicling the sins of the House of Mannon/Atreus, a clan illustrated in the glowering portraits that line the stage and theater walls. His is the only performance that touches on the emotional anguish of someone wrestling with tremendous issues of guilt and desire. The others seem conceived in isolation, shaped more by method than by context or character insight.
Supporting cast members are at best adequate, sometimes quite a bit less, often stymied by the awkwardness of Elliott’s blocking. Choreography of entrances and exits is especially inept, at times seeming prolonged simply to hear more of Pat Metheny’s parlor-guitar strumming.
In a play that should churn, simmer and swell over three parts and more than four hours, there’s no driving momentum here and, aside from the risibly overwrought sexual tussles, too little physicality. The scope and ferocity of O’Neill’s monumental epic are overshadowed by its repetitiveness (enough with that island metaphor) and simplistic psychology, its primal obsessions dulled down into amateurish histrionics.