IN THE FAST and fierce revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the National Theater, director Jonathan Miller removes the weighty mantle of "epic" from Eugene O'Neill's work about human weakness and makes it an intimate family drama. In this Broadway-bound production, with Jack Lemmon heading a fine ensemble, Miller vacuum-packs the play, compressing the usual four hours into a breathless three.
The 1941 play, which looks unsparingly at a day in the life of the James Tyrones, a family of flops, is O'Neill's bitter personal exorcism -- so close to the truth about his own family that O'Neill asked that it not be produced till 25 years after his death.
Patriarch Tyrone, an aging Irish Catholic actor, seems a good-natured old guy, but he is a miserly tyrant, and his stinginess has left his family with a legacy of misery. Tyrone's wife Mary is a morphine addict, and both parents are pathetic creatures of habit, endlessly repeating their faulty reminiscences and ingrained adages. Older son James Jr. is more successful as a drinker than an actor, and younger son Edmund, O'Neill's alter ego, is a morbid would-be poet and a consumptive.
As the August day wanes and the shadows deepen, the Tyrones lie to themselves and to each other, submerging the issues in whiskey or morphine, until all the pent-up poisons explode in a series of snarling, lacerating quarrels.
It is not a subtle play -- O'Neill announces his Significant Statements and symbols like foghorn blasts -- but it remains painful and potent drama.
Where the recent revival of O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" was mounted as a monumental museum piece, with every pause emphasized reverently, Miller attempts to reinvigorate "Long Day's Journey" with sheer speed. He sends the cast flying through reams of expository dialogue, dovetailing, overlapping and interrupting exchanges.
But this same speed also flattens some aspects of the play. The pivotal role of the mother is somewhat diminished, and many lengthy lines are delivered like a Federal Express commercial, in verbal torrents that make nuance impossible and leave the audience breathless.
As the elder Tyrone, Lemmon is superb, getting the man's bitterness and his humor; he never makes the role into a star turn, working instead within the ensemble. Bethel Leslie is a brittle, desiccated Mary Tyrone, and though Leslie renders some of her lines with blurring speed, she does well by Mary's difficult third act soliloquy, her out-of-it eyes glittering and vacant. As James Jr. and Edmund, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher create strong and distinctive characterizations and suggest the simultaneous camaraderie and rivalry between the two brothers.
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT -- At the National Theater through April 20.