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A Moon for the Misbegotten

Kevin Spacey and Eve Best are stunning in Howard Davies' possibly Broadway-bound production of Eugene O'Neill's classic drama.

Eve Best and Kevin Spacey
in A Moon for the Misbegotten
(© Old Vic Theatre)
Kevin Spacey probably had two goals in mind when he scheduled Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten as the opening production of his third season as The Old Vic's artistic director. He undoubtedly wanted to alter the perception that he has fallen down on the job after a rocky start. And, as Spacey must assess it, bounding once again into O'Neill territory -- after his galvanizing appearance as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh -- ought to guarantee bullish box-office response. Moreover, after the death of preeminent O'Neill interpreter Jason Robards, Spacey likely wants to make it clear that he's assumed the late actor's mantle.

With this production, which reportedly may arrive on Broadway this spring, Spacey has achieved his ends. As directed by Howard Davies, this Moon is no more than acceptably workmanlike in the first half; but in the second half, it blossoms like an exotic flower growing unexpectedly on Bob Crowley's nearly barren set with its tilted shack and working water pump. Crowley has covered the severely raked stage with red earth for O'Neill's down-to-earth characters to tread, squat, and collapse upon.

The second-half sequence is the stunner in which Spacey's James Tyrone and Eve Best's Josie Hogan play on O'Neill's favorite theme: They strip the illusions they have about themselves in order to face the truths of their lives, no matter how devastating those truths are to bare and bear. Under a misbegotten moon, these two misbegotten figures have rarely a moment when they aren't dealing with several conflicting emotions. Tyrone, drinking to forget but not forgetting, has to confront the remorse he feels after his mother's death. Hogan, repeatedly boasting of her sluttish ways, juggles her love for him and her belief that he has just sold the Hogan farm from underneath her and her father, Phil (the adorable Colm Meaney).

Always smart about entrances, Spacey makes an arresting one here. He enters slowly, cocky but inebriated. His performance starts slowly as well, almost as if he, and perhaps Davies, are saving his psychic energy for the final scenes. Regardless, Spacey is breathtaking as he runs the gamut of complex emotions when complex emotional gamut-running is called for. As Jim reaches for Josie and almost instantly pushes her away, only to reach for her again, it's as if the now gravel-voiced, now imploring Spacey is simultaneously being fed uppers and downers. Seeing his graphic depiction of Tyrone's torment is like watching a man being eaten alive from the inside out.

Best, who's been building quite a reputation for herself the last few years, is anything but obvious casting for the earth mother Josie. Whereas the character harps on herself as "a big ugly hulk" and a "big ugly cow," Best is slim and shapely, even in Lynette Mauro's shapeless costumes. Granted, women often have off-kilter views of their physical appearance, but no one constructed along Best's lines could make Josie's claims without eventually being contradicted. But though Best is no earth mother, she transforms herself into a believable earth daughter, engaging Spacey with concomitant emotional honesty. Having appeared in Mourning Becomes Electra at the 2003 National Theatre revival, she continues to stake her claim as an O'Neill player of note.

The collaborative efforts of Davies and his cast only register as respectable until Spacey and Best claw through their shared long night's journey into day. Nevertheless, this production suggests that the received wisdom about the pluses and minuses of O'Neill's writing needs revision; the charge that the playwright is relentlessly prosaic is nonsense, although he does indulge himself in extended blarney about Josie's relationship to her bibulous father. However, when O'Neill gets to the Jim-Josie moonlight encounter, he produces a tone poem full of myriad resonant tones. It's indisputably one of the most masterful scenes in American theater literature. The claim that O'Neill is repetitive also doesn't stick; the controlled repetition here reflects the reality of two people compulsively excoriating themselves for self-diagnosed sins. This O'Neill work is not misbegotten.


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