Mourning Becomes Electra

Scott Elliott directs an extremely uneven production of Eugene O’Neill’s reworking of the Oresteia.

Jena Malone and Lili Taylor in Mourning Becomes Electra
(© Monique Carboni)
Jena Malone and Lili Taylor in Mourning Becomes Electra
(© Monique Carboni)

The chance to see
Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s revision to the Oresteia myth, doesn’t come along all that often, primarily because it’s a gargantuan undertaking for both artists and audiences. Like Aeschylus’ telling of the Greek stories about the carnage within the house of Atreus, Electra is a trilogy of plays that, in order to have their full impact, must be seen together and in sequence. So while theatergoers owe a debt of gratitude to The New Group and director Scott Elliott for simply putting on this ambitious production, audiences’ appreciation for the endeavor will be sorely undermined by its decidedly uneven delivery, not to mention its four-plus-hour running time.

Set in a small New England town just as the Civil War is coming to a close, the work focuses on the Mannon clan, run by patriarch Ezra (imbued with gravitas and dignity by Mark Blum), who returns home to find that not all is as he’s left it. In his absence, wife Christine (Lili Taylor) has embarked on an affair with Adam Brant (Anson Mount), a handsome ship’s captain, and their daughter Lavinia (Jena Malone) has discovered her mother’s adultery. As in the Greek, murder begets murder: Christine kills Ezra to protect her honor and ensure her future with Adam, which precipitates a vengeful plot by Lavinia and her brother Orin (Joseph Cross), who returns from the frontlines with what might be considered today to be post-traumatic stress disorder.

O’Neill certainly transposes details of the Greek stories to this American setting, creating a back story of familial discord (scenic designer Derek McLane makes the long history of the Mannon clan known with portraits that face down on the action and flank the audience in a handsome unit set design) that echoes the woes of Agamemnon’s forebears. Moreover, his use of secondary characters and townsfolk also provides a marvelous sort of Greek chorus for the piece. And with such details, Electra becomes a gorgeous mosaic of Greek storytelling, Victorian-era romance, and early 20th-century dramatic convention — a mixture that requires a sure-handed director to pull it together.

Elliott’s work initially appears as if it will be decidedly bold. In the production’s opening moments, exposition between the Mannon’s long-time servant Seth (played amusingly by Robert Hogan) and several acquaintances is delivered as a sort of call and response sequence. It’s an ingenious way of transforming naturalistic dialogue into something more resembling Greek drama. But as the play progress, so does Elliott’s unsure approach to the material, echoed in Jason Lyons’ frequently murky lighting design.

The acting also ranges in quality and tone from Taylor’s furiously paced portrayal of Christine to Cross’ rendering of the disturbed Orin, which comes across more whiny and callow than psychologically haunted. Malone easily communicates Lavinia’s often contradictory qualities, primarily her fierce independence and her deep-seated need for her father’s love, approval, and companionship. However, she never looks like a woman of the period; her spiky close-cut hair makes her look as if she might be more at home in the East Village than an antebellum mansion and Susan Hilferty’s costumes bring to mind gowns from the 1930s.

In the show’s final scene, Lavinia retreats into the home which has frequently been referred to as a “tomb” to live out her days in solitude. Unfortunately, what should be a moment of intense sadness comes only as a relief to an exhausted and somewhat disappointed theatergoer.

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