Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Moon For The Misbegotten (The SOB Review)

A Moon For The Misbegotten (The SOB Review) - Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, NY

***1/2 (out of ****)

It may seem like sacrilege for a self-professed theatre fan to confess to never having seen Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon For The Misbegotten. But here’s my admission: I finally saw this masterpiece for my first time.

With memories still fresh from the impeccable 2003 Broadway revival of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I was eager to finally consume the next chapter of the Tyrone family’s story, which of course, is based in part on the playwright’s own brother’s life. Having already witnessed the ruinous self-destructive path of mother Mary Tyrone and the beginnings of that propensity in her son Jamie, I understood that Moon’s continuation of his story would point toward the same bleak end for him.

Since I had never before seen A Moon For The Misbegotten, I had few preconceived notions of how each character should be portrayed. However, in reading the reviews in advance, I certainly knew that many critics were less than pleased by Kevin Spacey’s unique reading of an older, but hardly more mature Jim Tyrone. But I vowed that in seeing the show, I would not let those critiques unfairly prejudice my receptivity to Spacey’s interpretation or the production itself.

Ask anyone who’s held off in seeing a show until it’s already well into its run and they’re likely to tell you that it’s either a blessing or a curse.

It may be a blessing because the production has long since found its footing. Or perhaps it’s a blessing since the actors have achieved a higher degree of confidence in their own portrayals, not to mention a greater symbiotic relationship with the rest of the cast. On the other hand, it may be a bit of a curse if the critics weren’t necessarily kind to the production. Or even worse, if the actors are already calling in their performances, essentially making the show anything but vital.

The latter most certainly cannot be said about Howard Davies’ mesmerizing, profoundly moving, and yes, even entertaining production. I never thought three hours in a theatre could go by so quickly given the tough, dark subject matter.

To say I was completely spellbound by the intensity of the three principal actors would be an understatement. Colm Meaney, Eve Best and Spacey are all brilliant.

As the scheming and belligerent Phil Hogan, Meaney swaggers, cajoles and even cowers under his promiscuous daughter Josie’s domination. Best is nothing short of a revelation; the diminutive actress may not quite be the cow O’Neill originally envisioned, but her forceful take on Josie makes her a woman whom men should challenge at their own peril. And yet, there’s such a genuine quality to her Josie that whether she’s squaring off -- with her own father, the neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Billy Carter in a real display of comic relief) or Jim Tyrone – or falling deeply for Jim’s charms, Best offers the production’s most nuanced performance.

And then there’s Spacey, much derided for what is perceived as a lighthearted, almost comedic portrayal of the alcoholic Jim Tyrone. No matter that in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, we got a glimpse early on into how Mary Tyrone herself glossed over her demons. Never mind that throughout O’Neill’s writing, the audience is reminded continuously that this washed-up actor is a natural kidder. (What’s that old saying? “Once a kidder, always a kidder”?) And lest I forget, Josie is supposed to be attracted to this man, isn’t she?

What I found so captivating about Spacey’s ultimately heartbreaking portrayal is that, as the eternal actor and kidder, Jim Tyrone has little choice but to mask over the truth and shame he feels deep in his soul by putting up a front of frivolity. That and the refuge he takes in the bottle essentially provide him the sole remaining means by which he can bear to live with himself.

Jim’s subsequent meltdown in Josie’s arms is rendered all the more poignant and tender because for a fleeting moment, Josie finally has a clear view into the window of his aching soul. She’s able to truly comprehend the extent of her would-be lover’s extraordinary anguish, sense of loss and resulting humility.

Together, Best and Spacey are as symbiotic as any two actors I’ve witnessed, and they provide one of the most astonishing and affecting hours I’ve experienced from live theatre all year. This haunting revival of A Moon For The Misbegotten is, in a word, spectacular.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Was Moon Eclipsed By Critics? (April 10, 2007)
Broadway Moon Shines On Opening Tonight (April 9, 2007)
A Moon For The Students (April 4, 2007)
Money For The Begotten? (January 10, 2007)
Brooks Atkinson To Get Space(y)d Out With Moon For The Misbegotten (November 22, 2006)

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At 12 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, I saw A Moon for the Misbegotten on the first evening of my first-ever trip to Broadway. So before talking about the play, let me mention a few things about the experience.

When I walked into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and saw the set, with the shack that I'd seen picutures of from the Old Vic production, well, it was thrilling. As the usher led me to my seat in the second row, I felt a momentary flash of panic. The first row is a short one, so there was no seat in front of me. I could almost have reached out and touched the stage. I thought to myself, "I need to ask for another seat. I can't be this close!" And then, when I saw how casually my fellow theatergoers were dressed, well, I was amazed and realized that I'd packed way too much!

Kevin Spacey is what got me interested in going to the theater, in coming to Broadway. In the 18 months since he answered the fan letter I wrote after seeing Beyond the Sea, I've seen or read every interview he's given, seen all of his movies. To say that I had a lot invested in seeing him on stage would be quite an understatement!

It's kind of a doble-edged sword, though. When you see an actor on stage whom you admire greatly but you've only seen in movies, it's incredibly exctiing. But I think that because so much anticipation had built up in my mind, it was a little more difficult to suspend disbelief than it was for any other performance I saw in New York. Also, I'd read the play beforehand, and I wish I hadn't.

That's not to say I didn't love seeing Kevin on stage. Of course I did. When he came out about 25 mintues into the play, the only think about was, "It's Kevin Spacey. I can't believe it. It's Kevin Spacey. I can't believe I'm so close." My jaw dropped in amazement, a smile crossed my face, and I'm not sure it ever completely left for the remaining 2 1/2 hours. And as we know, this is not a happy play!

I was a little thrown by Kevin's performance. I'd seen the DVD of Long Day's Journey where he played Jamie, opposite Jack Lemmon and Peter Gallagher. His Jamie was witty in spots, but also very angry and bitter and sarcastic. I guess I expected Jim to be more like Jamie, but he really wasn't. Twenty years later, near the end of his life, he was a different man, a different kind of drunk.

You mentioned the blessing or curse of seeing a show when it's already into its run. Of course, as you've said, that's what makes the theater unique. I can go to a movie now or a month from now, and while I might get something new from it, the performance will be exactly the same.

When I saw the play a few days later for the second time, I sat near a Juilliard student and at intermission, we talked about Kevin's performance. He said basically what you've said, that humor is this failed, dying actor's last defense mechanism. He's an utterly defeated human being. It's what he uses to hide the pain. After that conversation, I understood and appreciated Kevin's performance much better. (Good thing Kevin made provisions for those cheap student seats!)

Still, near the end, when Jim was clearly no longer being the washed-up ham, I'm not sure whether the audience was always fully able to make that transition. I do remember a couple instances of inappropirate laughter. I wanted to shout "This part isn't funny!"

I think that truly great art has to hit its audience on a personal level, something in that book or movie or song or play or painting has to strike a chord. There has to be some connection. And Jim's final, emotional revelation made me think about how we relate to the people we love, how we may unintentionally hurt them.

LIke I said previously, the three plays I saw, Moon, Deuce, and Frost/Nixon, were all about conversations between two people. Moon was clearly the most emotional and anguished, and watching Eve and Kevin together, I felt that anguish.

While I'd seen a great deal of Kevin's work, I'd only seen Eve Best in a small role in the last Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren on PBS. Her performance as Josie was quite a revelation. I thought she was amazing. Like you said, she doesn't fit O'Neill's description, but I had no problem accepting her as this rough-hewn, ungainly woman. She exuded such toughness and physicality and strength, yet had an underlying tenderness. I believed that she could have run that farm pretty much singlhandedly while keeping her father, brothers and anyone else in line. (And I still don't know how she kept her feet from being cut on that set!) I was mesmerized.

And I thought that she and Kevin were great together. When the play ended and they were taking their bows, Eve got an extra round of sustained applause. Kevin had a look on his face like he was so thrilled and so proud. His arm was extended toward her, like "here she is." He was happy that she was in the limelight, and I thought, what a gracious gesture.

Afterward, I stood with a small crowd at the stage door, managed to say a few words to Kevin and got his autograph. It made a memorable evening complete.

Actually, that's not quite accurate. What really made the evening complete was walking around Times Square, being part of the after-theater crowd, taking pictures of all the lit-up theater marquees. It was pretty exciting!

I had an absolutely wonderful time in New York. It's my favorite city in the world right now, and it's the theater that really makes it that way. I loved spending all day walking around, going to museums, seeing the sights, then at night, having this incredible array of shows to choose from.

It really is a different experience every time. Even when I saw shows that didn't get the greatest critical response, I was just so happy to be there. I saw six shows - Moon twice - and there were at least another half-dozen I wanted to see. In fact, I wanted to see just about everything. I'm hoping to go back again soon.

And Steve, your advice, support and friendship went a long way toward making my trip so memorable. In these past six months, and especially after my trip to Broadway, I've come to understand why you're so enthusiastic and so passionate about the theater. Thank-you.

At 14 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dear Esther,

I can certainly appreciate the double-edged nature of your finally taking in your very first Broadway show, especially since it was a play that starred your favorite actor. I used to have the same difficulty of separating a major star who was standing just a few feet in front of me from his/her actual performance because I was just in awe of being in his/her presence.

Fortunately for me -- and I think it's due to time and the sheer number of shows I've seen -- I've been able to get beyond thinking of who's up there on stage as long as the acting is good. Trust me, there have been plenty of actors who just weren't very good when I couldn't get my mind off of who they were and thinking how terrible they are on stage.

Thankfully, Kevin Spacey is not in that category. He delivered such a sad, terribly lonely performance that moved me.

Credit Mr. Spacey with bringing the two of us together as friends. I'll always be indebted to him for the role he played, not only on stage, but also unknowingly between the two of us!

Welcome to the world of theatre, Esther!



At 14 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to let you know that you were "right on" with your review. You were one of the few reviewers that got what Kevin was trying to put across as Jim.

"What I found so captivating about Spacey’s ultimately heartbreaking portrayal is that, as the eternal actor and kidder, Jim Tyrone has little choice but to mask over the truth and shame he feels deep in his soul by putting up a front of frivolity. That and the refuge he takes in the bottle essentially provide him the sole remaining means by which he can bear to live with himself.

Jim’s subsequent meltdown in Josie’s arms is rendered all the more poignant and tender because for a fleeting moment, Josie finally has a clear view into the window of his aching soul. She’s able to truly comprehend the extent of her would-be lover’s extraordinary anguish, sense of loss and resulting humility."

I was lucky enough to see the production of Moon in London at The Old Vic quite a few times and flew to NY for one day just to see it on Broadway. I saw perfection on the stage at The Old Vic and I once again saw perfection on the stage at the BAT.
The whole cast is simply amazing.
Thank you again for writing such a terrific review of a great play.

At 15 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jen, I'm thrilled that you found me and my little site. Even though we didn't share the experience together, I'm elated to know that you had the same kind of experience as I did.

Personally, I take great umbrage with critics who seem to think a performance has to be delivered the way they've always seen it before rather than allowing an actor to re-interpret. I believe Kevin Spacey hit it out of the ballpark, and I also believe he was seriously robbed of a Tony nod today.

Thanks for visiting and keep coming back!

At 15 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also agree that Kevin was robbed of a Tony nomination. I am thrilled that Eve Best got nominated. She is fantastic as Josie.
Everytime I have see Moon, I see a different play. There is always something different that Kevin does, whether it is how he clutches his fists when he takes a drink, or a look on his face as he glances at Josie, or how Josie and Jim joke with each other.
As Kevin says, you have to bring something new to the play every performance, otherwise he gets bored as well as the audience.
This man was meant to be on the stage. It is his true calling!

At 15 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jen, Guess I can't say I'm surprised that every performance is different, but I appreciate the confirmation.

I believe that the only actress between Eve Best and a Tony is Julie White. As stunning as Vanessa Redgrave was, she won just a few years back, and Angela Lansbury already has four trophies - I can't believe that they Tony voters would select a show that wasn't well reviewed (unless it was their signal that they wanted her back again soon).

Julie White had a star-making turn that was very celebrated. I think if Eve Best can get past her, the Tony is all hers.

At 17 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, people!

My husband and I are French fans of Kevin Spacey's (and now of Eve Best's and Colm Meaney's) and we saw the play twice in London last fall.

Don't listen to the American critics. They're more than slightly prejudiced and it seems there's kind of a conspiracy between them to spread stupid opinions – especially about the way Kevin delivers his lines. He sometimes speaks fast without taking his breath, that's true, but it's the director's choice and it has a strong meaning in the construction of Jim Tyrone's character.

Besides, the english critics didn't complain about anything when the play was running at the London Old Vic. Odd, isn't it? I think the American critics are unable to forgive Kevin for having chosen to settle and work in the UK, and they're systematically looking for the little mote out of which they'll make a big mountain. Fortunately, the audience is more intelligent and more open than the hacks!

Kevin's philosophy is not to read the critics until the end of the run. Wise habit. In that case, he shouldn't read them at all, that would make no difference and he wouldn't waste his precious time :-).

At 17 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Hello Chiarissima! Glad you found this SOB!

I really didn't pay any attention to what the critics had to say, other than to be completely annoyed by their reviews even more so after I saw the show. As noted in my "5 Best" revival of a play story yesterday, it was stunning.

I wish I could explain why the Tony nominators didn't give the production a nod for Best Revival. It's insane.

Hopefully, you enjoyed my review on the show. I'd be curious to know if your experience was similar to mine.


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