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A Rum Play

Moon's Shine Tarnished by Passé Patter

Satellite Of Love: J.M. McDonough and Valerie Costantini in Rep Stage's A Moon for the Misbegotten

By Jack Purdy | Posted 10/31/2001

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill took an American theater still in thrall to 19th-century melodrama and dragged it into the real world--and sometimes into the gutter--in plays such as Anna Christie and The Iceman Cometh. So revolutionary was O'Neill's work that he earned four Pulitzer Prizes and, in 1936, the Nobel Prize for Literature--the only time an American playwright has won the Super Bowl of the quality-lit game.

But the funny thing about realism, as opposed to melodrama, is that realistic works often wind up in thrall to the era that gave them their inspiration. This becomes clear when you see A Moon for the Misbegotten, the last play O'Neill completed before becoming debilitated by a neurological disease. Finished in 1943, the play is set in September 1923 on the Connecticut farm of Phil Hogan, played by Bill Hamlin in the production now on at Rep Stage. Hogan, a "stage Irishman" if ever there was one, has long been a tenant of the Tyrones, O'Neill's analog for his own family, whom the world would come to know intimately in Long Day's Journey Into Night, produced only after the playwright's death. With the elder Tyrones now deceased, Hogan fears his farm may be sold by James Tyrone Jr. (J.M. McDonough), the family's older son. But if James can somehow be inveigled into a relationship with Hogan's daughter, Josie (Valerie Costantini), perhaps all will be well.

Throughout the first act, dominated by the battling father-and-daughter team of Hogans, Moon's realism seems . . . real. Yes, they are barefooted, raggedy Irish-peasant types, but the flow of their language, which O'Neill undoubtedly recalled from his own father's Irish tenants, is devoid of archaism. It's when James Tyrone enters the picture that the play becomes stilted, the language a distraction.

McDonough's performance as James is superb--he has a buttery baritone that's note-perfect for Tyrone, a broken-down Broadway actor far gone in alcoholism. And never once does McDonough play his drunk too broadly. He's got James Tyrone nailed as a man who always tries to appear less drunk than he really is. (And throughout the play, Tyrone is always drunk.)

The problem is, so many of James Tyrone's lines are based on Broadway-sharpie patter dating back nearly 100 years now. Every time James, trying to dissuade Josie from making herself out to be a bawd, says, "Nix on that, kid," or "Can the rough stuff, Josie," the dated nature of the speech is jarring--it's like watching a movie from the 1960s with one character continually saying "groovy" and "far out." Oddly enough, James Tyrone's language causes the same problem in Long Day's Journey Into Night, where the dysfunctional Tyrones all speak normally, save for James' Great White Way slang. It's the theatrical law of unintended consequences--the very stuff that once added realism now seems completely alien.

Too bad, because the rest of Moon is endearingly nostalgic, a love letter to a dead man from his younger brother, who saw beyond his sibling's easy booze-riddled cynicism to the wounded romantic underneath--the man who felt unloved by his parents and so threw himself and his money away on liquor and whores. O'Neill's sensitivity to those who feel unloved was never sharper than in this play, and in Act 3, when Josie and the drunken James fully recognize their spiritual affinity, the tenderness between Costantini and McDonough is palpable.

Some brave producer may one day approach the O'Neill estate and ask permission to rewrite James Tyrone's long-gone slang. Then the sad, loving fatalism of this play will finally be realized.

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