Death, heavy as the fog that surrounds the Tyrone family home and somber as the low sea-monster cry of the foghorn echoing across the water, hangs over “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Eugene O’Neill’s soul-baring masterwork played Broadway last season in a revival that won Jessica Lange a Tony, and now haunts the Geffen Playhouse in a separate production. But alas, the West Coast version, starring Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina, goes rather too gently into that good night.
Director Jeanie Hackett softens scenes in which members of the iconically dysfunctional Tyrone clan, based on O’Neill’s own family, have it out with one another. The cast speeds through what could be shouting matches at a clip that makes the characters start to sound like livestock auctioneers rather than sword-drawn rivals. The result is a relatively short “Long Day’s Journey,” as Hackett compresses the nearly-four-hour play into a 200-minute evening that isn’t nearly as unpleasant or shocking as it ought to be, dulled somewhat by more than 60 years of imitation and improvement.
On Tom Buderwitz’s ghostly two-story set, mom Mary (Kaczmarek) shoots morphine in her bedroom upstairs, while her husband James (Molina) and adult sons knock back whiskey in the living room. A thousand miles from the TV-mom role (“Malcolm in the Middle”) for which Kaczmarek is most widely recognized, Mary has recently returned from what today might be considered rehab, though it’s clear to everyone in the house that she’s back on the stuff. To the audience, however, she comes across more as your garden-variety neurotic than the “hophead” and “dope fiend” O’Neill describes, sticking “hypos” in her veins whenever her sons aren’t looking, and oh-so-sensitive to their suspicion when they are.
Poison runs through all the Tyrones’ veins — to each his own — and the whiskey flows freely from well before lunch (for even the maid, played by Angela Goethals, who practically pantomimes her character’s tipsiness). The evening’s only laughs come, rather too easily, from a running gag involving how each sneaks alcohol from beneath the nose of the head-of-house, played by Molina as more empathetic than the role would seem to ask.
In his heyday, James enjoyed fame and fortune as an actor but never greatness, and success never cured him of a stinginess that remains his son’s severest reproach. Obsessed with electricity bills, James lets just one bulb in the chandelier burn, and he seeks bargains when it comes to medical care for his consumptive son, Edmund (Colin Woodell, a handsome, James Franco-esque young actor), sending him to the cheapest doctor and the “state farm” in lieu of a proper sanatorium.
Such grievances belie a lifetime of dysfunctional family dynamics, and the play bears the now-dated signature of mid-century psychoanalysis. Contained herein is the weight of O’Neill’s history with his own family, including a father and a brother who were both actors, the tragedy amplified by the fact that they died a few short years later, before getting the chance to witness what Eugene ultimately achieved in that arena.
Looking back, he is hardest on his brother, Jamie (played here by Stephen Louis Grush), who confesses from the roaring depths of his drunkenness a competitive jealousy so profound, it’s no wonder O’Neill felt he had so much to prove: “It was your being born that started Mama on dope!” he hisses. Hurtful as such words may sound, they echo sentiments the play has already established, suggesting that this long, arduous day is but a repeat of the one before, and the one before that — that these same insults and resentments have been boiling over for years.
In the Geffen’s incarnation, this “Journey” dawns with slides of the O’Neill family projected on screens that flank the set, accompanied by indiscernible audio recordings, presumably of the author himself. It’s practically the only thing that feels unhurried in a production that can be daunting to process as it unfolds, so swiftly do the actors deliver their lines — so much so that at times, they stumble ahead of themselves in the script. At the press preview, Kaczmarek botched Mary’s funniest line, when asked why she, too, didn’t become an actress: “I was raised in a respectable home.” In his most respected play, O’Neill reveals how that wasn’t quite so true of himself.