Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” his posthumously released play on his harrowing family life as a youth, is the great American play. And a stellar company from the Bristol Old Vic theater in England is rubbing their vision of a vanquished American Dream in our faces and eating their way into our hearts at BAM’s Harvey Theater this month.
While America and Britain are walling themselves off from the world, this import has slipped through Customs and we’d be advised to experience such a miraculous production while we’re still able to.
Jeremy Irons is formidable and infuriating as the blustery actor dad James Tyrone, whose parsimony and regrets at making sure money on a role he repeated endlessly instead of fulfilling his artistic promise drive his long-suffering wife Mary (a ghostly and poignant Lesley Manville) to drug addiction and his elder son Jamie (Rory Keenan) to drink, while his tall but frail youngest son Edmund (Matthew Beard) is home from the sea with a life-threatening case of “consumption.”
Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theatre in London, places these wounded souls in the claustrophobic, cheaply furnished seaside Connecticut cottage’s front room, but lets his set designer Rob Howell encase the room in an expansive, modern reflective box (not out of place in the trendy Brooklyn Cultural District spawned by BAM), connecting the story to the world the insular Tyrones seclude themselves from each summer.
Manville goes from the controlled, domineering role of the partner/ sister to Daniel Day Lewis in “Phantom Thread” (for which she got an Oscar nod) to this lost, paranoid, self-pitying victim of a distant spouse and a quack doctor who got her on opioids. Manville is not nearly as famous as Meryl Streep, but her range on stage and screen (as a deluded, hurt, aging, “good-time gal” in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” for example) is as great.
While Mary sneaks around upstairs to shoot up, the men mostly drown their sorrows right in front of us with incredible amounts of spirits. While Irons as James can hold his liquor, Keenan as the defeated, cynical Jamie puts his inebriation on full display to great theatrical effect.
But in the end, it is Beard’s Edmund who is most affecting — hit hard by TB and his father’s withholding of adequate medical treatment for it, the affections of his mother alternating with her accusation that his birth got her on drugs, and the alcohol enabling camaraderie of his brother. He has, his father tells him, “a touch of the poet,” but his sensitivity leaves him most vulnerable to the pathologies around him — from those in his family to the bugs that can overtake us when we’re emotionally strained. It’s a breakout role for Beard who played the shy, wannabe boyfriend of Carey Mulligan in “An Education” on film and the Tony-nominated rebound boyfriend of Mulligan in “Skylight” on Broadway.
Tyrone, Sr., is a great role for the accomplished Irons, whose had his own share of artistic triumphs as well as roles that were just about paychecks. Physically, he put me in mind of the playwright himself — though O’Neill is Edmund in this play. (A famous smoker, Irons is thankfully allowed here to smoke real cigars instead of those herbal things so many productions let waft distractingly into the audience.)
As we contemplate the fracturing of our American family almost every single day now, this production could not be timelier.
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT | BAM’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl. | Through May 27: Mon.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $35-$150 at bam.org or 718-636-4100
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