Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" may well be the most harrowing American drama ever written. Tormented as most of our family dramas seem to be, no other American has playwright ever looked at his roots with such brutal honesty or such unrelenting anguish. To watch this marathon work is to suffer the reopening of a huge wound: the first lacerating stabs of pain giving way to a steadily mounting ache from which there is no relief. The only surcease, in fact, comes with the final curtain.
It may, therefore, sound vaguely masochistic to say that the curtain comes down all too soon on the curious pre-Broadway revival that opened last night at the National Theatre, with Jack Lemmon in the role of the one-time matinee idol James Tyrone (O'Neill's own actor father). Too many productions of "Long Day's Journey" drone on until the wee hours. Director Jonathan Miller, however, has seen to it that all the sodden soul-searching, the endless recriminations and those sudden lurches from love to hate and back to love again are over in two hours and 45 minutes.
And he's accomplished the feat without bringing out the scissors. What he's done instead is overlap speeches, speed up the tempo and encourage his actors to talk at the same time. The Tyrones, as he sees them, are squabblers. They've been over the same arguments, hurled about the same accusations and dredged up the same misguided memories a hundred times before. So they butt in on one another, fight harangue with harangue or simply close their ears and take off on tangents of their own. There is to be no luxuriating in agony, and those long, reverberating silences, broken by the plaintive call of the fog horn, have been largely dispensed with. This "Long Day's Journey" is a headlong rush into the night.
In theory, it sounds tantalizing. But in practice, it doesn't work out as well. Compelling as the approach initially is, it ultimately drains "Long Day's Journey" of its bludgeon impact. Is it possible that the work's force is a function of length? That you have to live through it all -- the petty and protracted scenes, as well as the sublime ones -- to experience the full tragic release? Going from 45 rpms to 78, as it were, tends to trivialize the drama -- just as it produces some pure (and intentional) babble.
You keep waiting for ebbs in the tumultous flow. The ebbs are important. They afford you an entrance into the work, a chance to get closer to the characters. When they come, they prove to be the most potent moments of the evening: a momentarily spent Lemmon, collapsing on a rattan divan and ruefully imagining the actor he might have been if he hadn't sold out to easy success in a hollow melodrama; or Bethel Leslie, as his spectral wife, remembering the schoolgirl blush that colored her cheeks when she first met him in his dressing room. Peter Gallagher, as Edmond, the consumptive younger son (O'Neill himself), is never so commanding as when he drunkenly muses on the eternal lure of sea and the foam. And Kevin Spacey, as Jamie, the older son, makes us feel the waste and self-loathing of the character most keenly when he is battling with himself, not the rest of the family. At such junctures, the characters assert their full dimensions and consequently lay claim to our hearts.
Much of the time, however, they are harnessed to furious Punch and Judy rhythms that have Lemmon, for example, jabbing his finger at one and all like an irate traffic cop, and Leslie jabbering away in a breathless panic that is more appropriate to Tennessee Williams than O'Neill. The mother is, of course, high on morphine, but rather than deaden her to the world, as she claims it does, the drug seems to throw her into a frenzy. The woman who descends the stairs at the end of the play is not so much a pathetically blasted creature, lost in hazy yesterdays, as she is a Greek fury.
Credit Miller with bringing into sharp focus one aspect of the play that we may have overlooked in the past: The Tyrones have a niggling, squalid side to them. In the dramatic pantheon, they occupy a lofty seat. But they themselves are made of clay. They can be vicious, unthinking, self-centered and vindictive. This production cuts them down to size -- even at the risk of seeing comedy in their late-night vigil.
Lemmon's performance is, in that sense, unique. You will not find in him the residual grandeur of the 19th century swashbuckling actor. This James Tyrone is worn-out, haggard, stooped under the burden of frustrations big and small. He likes to quote Shakespeare, but he does so with the staccato delivery of one who lost touch with the words and now merely utters them by rote. He is quick to anger, but his rage is that of a scrappy street cur. What he gains in feistiness, however, he loses in stature. There is ultiamtely something too familiar about the portrayal, a neighborliness that borders on the commonplace.
Leslie is an exquisite, fine-featured woman, but the rasp in her voice suggests a certain coarseness. She, too, is reminding us that Mary Tyrone is only a common merchant's daughter, a weak woman who is always looking for scapegoats. The portrait is frighteningly self-contained -- she has bid the world goodbye before the play starts -- but it becomes less and less moving. Spacey is so bound up in an aggressive display of drunkenness and the love of a rowdy argument that it is hard to find the redemption deep in his soul. Only Gallagher -- an actor of brooding intelligence -- manages to submit to the harum-scarum brawling and somehow remain undimished by it.
The production is handsomely housed in a set by Tony Straiges that elimates some of the walls of the Tyrones' summer cottage, the better to let in the blackness of the night. Willa Kim's costumes -- all in whites and creams -- deftly advance the notion that the Tyrones are ghosts in the making. And Richard Nelson's shadowy lighting furthers the impression.
Original as Miller's interpretation is, however, it exhausts its novelty well before the play reaches its terrible climax. The Tyrones have problems enough -- avarice, alcoholism, drug addiction, consumption. Giving them all a case of St. Vitus Dance, in addition, does seem to be overdoing matters, even if it gets spectators out of the theater in record time.
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Willa Kim; lighting, Richard Nelson. With Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Bethel Leslie, Peter Gallagher, Jodie Lynne McClintock. At the National Theatre through April 20.