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Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina in  Long Day's Journey into Night at the Geffen Playhouse (photo courtesy Geffen Playhouse)
Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina in Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Geffen Playhouse (photo courtesy Geffen Playhouse)

Long Day’s Journey into Night

Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Geffen Playhouse
Through March 18

Only a dunderhead would criticize Eugene O’Neill’s powerhouse drama about the unravelling of one of America’s most unhappy families for being too long. Of course it’s long. Long Day’s Journey is a drama of a type rarely seen these days: It’s character-driven and immersive. Any decent production (which this one, directed by Jeanie Hacket, assuredly is), will make the audience feel that they know these characters and that their lives are unfolding as we watch.

That said, Hackett’s production rarely achieves the emotional heights that would mark it as memorable. Instead, it’s a good iteration of O’Neill’s tale — great if you haven’t seen the show before, but otherwise surprisingly workmanlike. 

The play, — which is considered O’Neill’s attempt to expiate feelings of guilt and resentment towards his parents — charts a long dark day in the lives of the Tyrone family in their Connecticut summer home.  Former matinee idol and stage actor James (Alfred Molina), his wastrel son James Jr., also an actor (Stephen Louis Grush), and his youngest son Edmund (Colin Woodell) start the day feuding about minor subjects, while skirting the fact that young Edmund may have consumption, and may require a lengthy sanitarium stay.

The family’s real concern however, is mother Mary (Jane Kaczmarek), who’s just been released from a sanitarium herself, and whose cheerfulness teeters over an abyss of monstrous self-destruction. As a day of recriminations and confrontations progresses, and as the men of the house get steadily more drunk, Mary descends into morphine-addicted oblivion.

The show, partly due to the finesse of the writing and partly due to the intimate mood Hackett creates, often feels as if it’s unfolding in real time and as if we’re experiencing events as they’re happening. That said, elements of the staging — some weird visual images that are projected onto the wall during scene changes, and an unfortunate attempt to frame the work as Eugene O’Neill’s personal story by playing historically fascinating but incoherent audio tapes of him reading poetry — seem jarring and pretentious.

Performances are quite good, with Molina’s blustery bonhomie masking a prodigious layer of anger and denial, which he covers with miserliness: In this era of Trumpian alpha males, he comes across as a man who feels passionately but never follows through on his promises (a vision of American arrogance gone bleak). As his sons, Grush and Woodell deliver nuanced portrayals; particularly evocative is Grush’s twisted resentment of his younger freer brother, an emotion that emerges only after a night of near-debilitating drunken debauchery.

But it is on Kaczmarek that our eyes inevitably focus. Her performance is fascinating, and evokes the sense of an addict whose recovery is almost doomed from the start, and who falls off the wagon by terrible degrees. From her first appearance, with her high-strung cheerfulness a little too forced to be entirely convincing, to the wheedling excuses she puts forward to justify her return to her dope, to her final dreamlike end, when her drug-induced delusions have obliterated memory of family and love, her trajectory is horrifyingly recognizable and sadly contemporary.

However, her decline more resembles the travails of a character on the show “Intervention” than one in a great lyrical tragedy —it never shatters us, which is a shame, since the result is to provide anchor for a competent, rather than soaring, production of this great ferocious play. 

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues.- Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; through March 18. (310) 208-5454 or http://geffenplayhouse.org.  Running time: three hours and 20 minutes with an intermission. 


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