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Kathleen McNenny and Andrew McCarthy in
A Moon for the Misbegotten
(Photo © Michael Mancuso)
Eugene O' Neill wrote poetry in addition to his plays, but he never considered himself a great poet. While he may have lacked the poetic abilities of his contemporary Tennessee Williams, he more than compensated for it by becoming a master of play construction. That's readily apparent in A Moon for the Misbegotten, now on view in an involving new production at Princeton's McCarter Theatre.

A quasi-sequel to O'Neill's celebrated Long Day's Journey Into Night, the play focuses on the Tyrone clan's oldest son, James (Andrew McCarthy), 11 years later. Following the death of his morphine-addicted mother, Mary, he has had a downward spiral, spending his days and nights drinking and searching for companionship in the arms of "Broadway tarts." His only friends in the world appear to be Phil Hogan (Jack Willis) and his daughter Josie (Kathleen McNenny), who reside on a rocky farm that James (or Jamie) inherited from his father. Tyrone has promised Phil that he can buy the farm after his mother's estate is settled, but when the Hogans' snobby millionaire neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Jeremiah Wiggins) makes an impressive offer for the place, that promise is thrown into doubt.

During the play's first two acts, director Gary Griffin -- currently represented on Broadway by The Color Purple -- places the emphasis on Phil and Josie. Although they are father and daughter, they often act more like an old married couple. Their relationship seems more relaxed and friendly than in previous productions, with Griffin highlighting the unruly sense of humor that they share, as in the scene in which they berate the hapless Harder. This approach works in terms of laughs but at the expense of softening Phil. As a result, the character doesn't seem nearly as hard and domineering as we are led to believe by his son Mike (Peter Scanavino), who was driven from home by his supposedly unyielding father.

Even less successful is Griffin's decision to focus the action within the Hogans' home; we get a clear representation of the farmhouse by Eugene Lee, who also designed the sets for the most recent Broadway revival of this play, but no sense of the rocky, nearly barren farm on which it sits. Fortunately, the director has done a fine job of casting. Josie describes Tyrone's gait as "like a dead man slow behind his own coffin," and McCarthy is hugely effective in communicating the character's physical decline. Willis is an appealing Phil, and McNenny's portrait of the unhappy Josie is well-defined.

Both Josie and James have dreams that cannot come true; they live behind masks to keep themselves from falling into utter despair over the injustice of lives unfulfilled. One night, they remove their masks and reveal themselves to each other. For the briefest of moments, these two wayward souls find redemption in each others' arms.

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