The hunt has taken me now to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville assume the guises of the play’s apex predators in director Richard Eyre’s mixed bag of a revival, one alternately engrossing and overly wound up, and in any case, disappointingly, never a soul-shatterer. The absorbing aspects have mostly to do with the motivations and interactions of Irons’s James Tyrone and Manville’s Mary: In describing them as predatory, I mean that what’s made plain in these performances is the emotionally hollowed-out carcasses that remain of their sons, dissolute Jamie (Rory Keenan) and nihilistic Edmund (Matthew Beard). It rarely has been as clear as in the way Irons and Manville impress it upon us the depths of James’s and Mary’s narcissism, how their lifelong fixations on their own stunted childhoods have rendered them incapable of nurturing anyone else.
So these are lions — the dapper, Oscar-winning Irons and the gifted Manville, Academy Award-nominated for her meticulously acidic performance in “The Phantom Thread” — sharing the stage with a pair of younger actors, whose portrayals, by contrast, feel shallower, cub-like. Beard’s Edmund is the more interesting performance of the two, as it touches meaningfully on both the fragility of the younger son’s dire medical condition and the acerbic worldview he has adopted. Keenan’s work as Jamie, a drunken playboy and halfhearted stage actor sponging pathetically off his skinflint of a father, comes across as hammy, as a portrait of dissipation that relies too heavily on mannerism. As a result, the normally devastating confession by Jamie, of the toxic danger he represents for Edmund, is an admission the younger brother can too easily brush aside.
A perfect quartet of Tyrones, I’ve found, is hard to muster; Jessica Regan on this occasion plays the play’s fifth character, the amusingly oblivious housekeeper, Cathleen. Perhaps the best lead foursome I’ve ever seen were in Sidney Lumet’s intense 1962 movie version starring Richardson and Hepburn, with Robards as Jamie and Dean Stockwell as Edmund. Nevertheless, Eyre, former head of Britain’s National Theatre, reveals in this Bristol Old Vic production, exported to BAM’s Harvey Theater, an admirable affinity for the interlocking battles waged in the play, for the minefield of grievances and accusations that O’Neill lays out. James’s miserliness, Mary’s drug addiction, Jamie’s carousing, Edmund’s tuberculosis are not merely personality flaws and disabilities; they’re weaponized traits, evidence each of the Tyrones cites to point out the ways in which the others have hurt or thwarted them.
Although Irons growls so realistically he chews some lines into indistinguishability, his James is the most persuasive I’ve seen since Richardson, on one critical score: as an actor who foolishly squandered a once sparkling talent on a popular role in which he ultimately became trapped. Irons’s account of the elder Tyrone’s bitter regret, confessed to Edmund as a fog horn bleats sadly outside the Tyrones’ cottage on Long Island Sound, is one of the evening’s most powerful interludes.
Manville makes up the other half of a particularly handsome Tyrone couple, and outfitted crisply by costume designer Rob Howell in immaculate, floor-length dresses, she’s a striking figure. She’s a physically restless Mary, too; her efforts to reach out to her husband and sons, rebuffed as her resorting to her drugs carries her ever more distantly off, have a rewardingly desperate edge. But as for the ghost she’s described as being — a dispiriting spirit whose descent into a morphine haze haunts her husband and sons — Manville never achieves that state of spectral disintegration, that sense of Mary’s decompensation becoming permanent and irreversible, that often makes the final scene so harrowing. The journey, it seems, is not quite complete.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Richard Eyre. Sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, John Leonard. About 3½ hours. $35-$150. Through May 27 at BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., New York. bam.org.