“American" and "tragedy" seem like antithetic terms. As a people, we are by nature boundless optimists. Tragedy, by definition, is about human limitations and the inevitability of sorrow. The triumph of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," is that he centered the battle between optimistic illusions and inevitability within a family. The love they bear each other even at their most acrimonious gives their struggle a tragic aura rather than merely a sense of futile energy. The triumph of the production Robert Falls has directed is that he has taken four stars and made that love believable and profoundly moving. When O'Neill's play first appeared on Broadway, on Nov. 7, 1956, the fact that three members of the Tyrone family were alcoholics, the fourth a morphine addict seemed highly bizarre. But, hey, they were in show business. Nowadays an addictive family seems oddly mainstream. What was universal about the Tyrones, even when their addictions seemed untypical, was the ritual of their family life - a longing to escape the endless cycle of remorse, recrimination and reconciliation. Like O'Neill's own father, James Tyrone was an actor who could have been great but settled for being successful. Mary Tyrone fell in love with James when she was preparing to be a nun. O'Neill himself said the play was about a world in which God was absent. The crippled life she lives is the most potent symbol of that absence. Jamie, the older son, is, like his father, an actor and a drinker. (Is that redundant?) Edmund, the younger boy, has lived an adventurous life and loves poetry as well as the bottle. He has tuberculosis, and one of the concerns of the play is whether his tightwad father will allow him to go to a decent sanatorium or consign him to a cheap state institution. The incandescent Vanessa Redgrave has devised brilliant gestures to convey all the nuances of Mary's complex character. At her first entrance, she has a wraithlike smile that makes her desperation immediately clear. But you also sense her eagerness to vanquish her demons. Often she licks her lips to push back her hair, like the insecure convent girl she was when she met James. At one point she sits on the arm of the chair of her favored son, Edmund, caressing his hair, conveying all her unfulfilled longings. Unlike some Marys, who keep their distance from the men in the family, she shows them great physical tenderness, but at the slightest provocation she crumbles, as if her bones were too brittle to sustain contact. Her final scene, in which she loses her will to fight and retreats to what she imagines is the Eden of the convent, is devastating. Brian Dennehy, as James, is not physically right for a 19th-century heroic actor. He does not have The Voice they mention, nor the heroic profile. But he has the bluff energy of an actor, and he makes painfully clear the intense anger he represses toward Mary. His stature grows as the evening progresses and we sense his own chagrin at his failures. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Jamie, mirrors him in his actor's bravado. One of the great things about the whole production is the sense of Irish humor the family share. Hoffman's is the keenest, and it makes his disintegration even more unnerving. As the tubercular Edmund, Robert Sean Leonard is the only member of the family who moves as if touched by grace, though we know he is doomed. He manages to be the poet without ever succumbing to the cliches of being "poetic."
Fiana Toibin brings rich humor to the role of the maid. Santo Loquasto's set conveys the grandeur and forlornness of this family's distorted sense of "home."
His costumes have their own drama, especially the enveloping red robe Dennehy wears. Brian MacDevitt's lighting adds immensely to the drama. This is a great production of one of the world's great plays.
Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" may just be the worst great play ever written.
Yet it never fails to move, and in the right hands, it will chill the heart and warm the soul.
And it has never been in better hands than Robert Falls', whose effortlessly magnificent staging opened at the Plymouth Theater last night.
I have seen every major American, British and even Swedish cast, but this one - Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Sean Leonard and (let's hear it for the spunky little Irish maid) Fiana Toibin - is the all-around finest.
The play is O'Neill at his harrowing best - a long night's journey into genius, sad, at times funny, but ultimately just truthful.
If all art is autobiography, this is art at its most unvarnished.
For here O'Neill is excavating his own past - a crucial 1912 night in the Connecticut summer home he shared with his elder brother, mother and father, the elderly, prosperous but parsimonious actor, James O'Neill, called here James Tyrone.
It is, as O'Neill wrote in the work's dedication, "a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood." And it's long. Most plays compress time, but here O'Neill manages to make it seem as long as life.
The writing is commonplace - everyday broadcloth clichés tumble over one another unnoticed in documentary profusion - but O'Neill's effort is so monumental, the pain in the recollection so profound, that we feel an almost voyeuristic guilt in bearing witness to it.
Theater being what it is, even in a perfect cast some are more perfect than others. Here, all pales beside the sight of Vanessa Redgrave grabbing a play by the throat and running off with it.
Watch her hands, sometimes fluttering like anxious mice, sometimes trailing with lost regret; watch her eyes, sometimes cunning with hope, sometimes dead with dope; listen to her voice, mostly a plaintive counterpoint to the melancholy fog-horns floating outside, yet capable of shrill horror.
This butterfly transmogrified into a moth hits tragedy early but squarely with the graceful prophetic power she understates into the line: "before the fog comes back - because I know it will." She is wonderful.
Philip Seymour Hoffman grandstands with such subtle bravura, his face bleary with drink, that he makes the elder brother, Jamie, an incredibly credible mix of good nature, broken failure and disappointed malice.
These are two consciously - even self-consciously - virtuoso performances against which the other two players in the quartet have to place themselves.
Helped by Falls, not to mention O'Neill, they do it with daring, simple craft.
Dennehy is bluffly wonderful as a blind bull of a James Tyrone, filling in his character with great actorly bits of business (note his just-enough gesture at the mention of Oscar Wilde) and staring out with only dim comprehension at his collapsed world.
And then there is the superb Robert Sean Leonard, a Hamlet to Redgrave's Gertrude. As the younger brother, the stand-in for O'Neill himself, he bears himself with the anxious air of a reporter at a traffic accident where he fears someone he knows might have been killed.
What more is there to praise about this anatomy of misery dissected to the naked bones? Of course, there's Brian MacDevitt's brilliantly crepuscular lighting, and Santo Loquasto's to-the-life costuming and his brown-gray house that etches on the memory.
Like the play, so much like the play . . .
Even when she's not around, you can't help thinking about her, any more than the three angry, anxious men onstage can. Where is she? What is she doing now? What do you think she's thinking? When will she strike out at them next?
The questions ring in your head with the fretful persistence of a distant fire alarm as you watch the fine, soul-piercing new production of ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' directed by Robert Falls and starring Vanessa Redgrave in a performance that will never leave the memory of anyone who sees it.
For whether or not she is actually visible, Ms. Redgrave is always devastatingly present in the revival that opened last night at the Plymouth Theater. As Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted mother in a family at war with itself, this astonishing actress seems to inhabit every pore of the production, as if she were the fever in the blood of Eugene O'Neill's anguished masterpiece.
Good old pity and terror, the responses that Aristotle deemed appropriate to tragedy, are seldom stirred on Broadway these days. But Ms. Redgrave elicits them again and again as Mary wanders restlessly through the long day of the play's title, dispensing blame and love, cold lies and scalding truths. You understand on a gut level why O'Neill, when writing this autobiographical play six decades ago, was said by his wife Carlotta to emerge from his study gaunt and red-eyed, looking 10 years older than he had in the morning.
Mind you, the men whom Mary rules are embodied in Mr. Falls's production by an estimable crew: Brian Dennehy as James Tyrone, the penny-pinching, grandstanding actor who is Mary's husband, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard as their sons, Jamie, the cynical ne'er-do-well, and Edmund, the tubercular poet and O'Neill's alter ego.
But one of the marvels of ''Long Day's Journey'' -- and one reason it so often seems newly born with every revival -- is that it can accommodate shifts in its center of emotional gravity. It is Tyrone Sr. who has most often dominated accounts of the play, from the original, in 1956, with Fredric March in the role, to the Jack Lemmon version of 17 years ago.
Here, however, it is Mary who emerges as the show's defining spirit, a woman who is at once the source, the victim and the clarifying and distorting mirror of the violent contradictions that animate the Tyrones. She also sets the compulsive rhythms -- the seesawing between affection and retribution, between the urges to heal and to hurt -- that is the family dynamic.
At least for the first two-thirds of the production, Mary's frightening supremacy makes inspired good sense, both psychologically and theatrically. Only in the final act, in which the men remember the Mama who has retreated into a distant, medicated haze offstage, do you realize completely the extent to which the rest of the cast has yet to approach Ms. Redgrave's level of insight and intensity.
All three men in the ensemble, which is rounded out by Fiana Toibin as Cathleen the maid, give the impression that they are still in the process of fully discovering their characters, especially Mr. Hoffman, a brilliant actor who is oddly tentative here. I suspect that before the play's run ends on Aug. 31, however, they will all have come substantially into their own.
Were the other cast members to become as searingly vivid as the spectral, statuesque Mary of Ms. Redgrave, who has seldom looked more beautiful or more ravaged, I'm not sure that audiences could bear it. This is Ms. Redgrave's best work in years and among her best ever.
The director Peter Hall, after seeing Ms. Redgrave in Ibsen's ''Lady From the Sea'' in the 1970's, wrote, ''You could see right through the skin to the emotions, the thoughts, the hopes, the fears underneath.'' This transparency is especially remarkable in ''Journey'' because Mary never seems to experience only one feeling at a time.
From the moment Mary and Tyrone first appear, emerging cozily from breakfast into the living room of the family's summer home in Connecticut (a monumental wooden tomb as designed by Santo Loquasto), you are conscious of the state of heightened emotional flux in which Ms. Redgrave's performance is cast. Her girlish smile slides askew for one startling second, as if she had suddenly been ambushed by unspeakable thoughts.
Once the boys join their parents, Mary's manner of dealing with her men becomes increasingly divided, as do her allegiances. The spotlight of response she turns on the others keeps changing its colors, from fretful solicitude to harsh reproach, from the sly self-concealing lies of a confirmed drug addict to raw self-revelation. What's most remarkable is the fluidity with which these shifts occur and how surprising they remain throughout the evening.
Watch carefully, for example, when Tyrone comes in late for lunch, and Mary rushes toward her husband with what you take at first for flirtatious chiding. Then without warning, she has become a fierce harpy, screaming out the grievances of a lifetime, which she will enumerate throughout the play as if they were rosary beads.
Or observe later, as Mary sits in the twilight with Cathleen (nicely played by Ms. Toibin), as the older woman recounts memories in which she genuinely becomes the girl she was when her husband, then a golden matinee idol, courted her. Then her voice sinks, her eyes go cold, and she dismisses Cathleen with the peremptoriness of someone for whom any kind of companionship is a burden.
These radical swings in sensibility, for which ambivalence is too weak a word, are only an extreme version of the behavior of all the Tyrones. Mary's behavior is an X-ray, of sorts, of the patterns within O'Neill's family portrait.
The separate encounters among the men, which might pass for ordinary domestic chafing in another context, are illuminated by the subtext Mary has so fiercely dragged to the surface. Everyone is caught in the same cyclical dance of love and war, propitiating and solacing one instant and attacking with a vengeance the next.
Mr. Falls has given these conflicting elements strongly physical life, as his performers move from hungry embraces to abrupt, strong-armed stiffness, as they push one another away. Mr. Dennehy, who collaborated to dazzling effect with Mr. Falls on ''Death of a Salesman,'' is especially good at evoking the memory of the erotic ties that bind Tyrone to Mary.
You can tell that he still sees his bride within her. And he has his character's Irish gallantry and defensive loquacity down cold. What he hasn't captured is the grand old ham in Tyrone, the man who ruled the stage for decades as a swashbuckler. Even reciting Shakespeare, he retains his brogue.
On the heels of impressive appearances in ''The Invention of Love'' and ''Fifth of July,'' Mr. Leonard delivers another affecting, cleanly drawn character study. He doesn't overdo Edmund's lyrical side, and with Ms. Redgrave, he is heartbreaking, conveying the abject woundedness of a son who wants so badly to reclaim the mother who keeps receding from him.
Mr. Hoffman has yet to settle comfortably into his role of the older brother, though he has promisingly astute moments, especially when Jamie crumples from bravado into shame. There's often a blankness, though, that suggests that he is treading water in the early scenes. And he plays the climactic, whiskey-fueled confrontation with Edmund with a flamboyant drunkenness that panders to the audience while blunting the pain of the scene.
Even given these lapses, however, this remains the most lucid and unsettling account of ''Journey'' that I have ever seen. Ultimately Ms. Redgrave's Mary does not run away with the show, which would terminally upset its balance. Instead, she radiates a searching, flickering light that reveals not only the battling selves beneath her skin but those of the others as well.
''The past is the present, isn't it?'' Mary asks famously. ''It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won't let us.'' Ms. Redgrave's Mary reminds you that O'Neill's ''Journey'' is a ghost story, in which the phantoms are not things of ectoplasm but blood relations. This Mary is a living specter who haunts her own life as she does the lives of her husband and sons. No one who sees Ms. Redgrave's performance will ever again be able to say there are no such things as ghosts.
Not all train wrecks are loud, flashy affairs. A catastrophe that unfolds slowly and quietly can be just as lurid.
Consider the spectacle on view at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre, where a star-studded new production of Long Day's Journey Into Nightopened Tuesday. The largely autobiographical play, considered Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, is a long one, and as directed by the estimable Robert Falls, it feels every bit its length — roughly four hours, with two intermissions.
But if you find yourself wanting to look away occasionally, it won't be to check your watch. Falls' mercilessly naturalistic interpretation enables us to see the Tyrones, that mother of all dysfunctional modern families, unravel in what seems like real time. And it's seldom a pretty sight.
Don't be fooled by the open feel of Santo Loquasto's set; any sense of space in this household is purely physical. From the moment we meet the hard-drinking actor James Tyrone, his morphine-addled wife and their two troubled sons, the ties that bind and threaten to strangle them are palpable.
The actors speak to, at, over and around each other, just as real-life kin in their casual, dire situation would. Their overlapping exchanges and awkward silences are so convincing that audience members may feel as if they're eavesdropping on the wacky neighbors.
Of course, there is little that's blithely amusing about the Tyrones' predicament, and this cast serves O'Neill's wry, morose vision well. Brian Dennehy captures the Tyrone patriarch's charisma and repressed melancholy with predictable vigor. It's not the incendiary star turn some might have hoped for, but it suits the scale and tone of the production better than a more flamboyant approach might have.
Philip Seymour Hoffman looms larger as the alcoholic elder son, Jamie, particularly in the play's harrowing final act. Hoffman's breathtaking ferocity rarely seems out of place, though, in part because he's such an effective foil to Robert Sean Leonard, who plays Jamie's sickly, coddled younger brother, Edmund — the character based on O'Neill himself — with a darkly witty and weary resignation.
But no presence on this stage is more striking or shattering than Vanessa Redgrave's Mary Tyrone, who veers from nervous lucidity to fits of gauzy euphoria and stunned despair that are every bit as horrifying, in their fragile way, as Jamie's outbursts. It's a rare actress who at 66 — or any age — can evoke a lost little girl, a spirited, alluring woman and a ravaged ghost.
It's a performance that, like Long Day's Journey itself, conjures the highs and lows of human experience — which, come to think of it, is a lot of ground to cover in only four hours.
Eugene O'Neill's brooding masterpiece about the pain of forgiving, and the impossibility of forgetting, arrives just in time to assuage memories of a Broadway season offering up rather too much that necessitated both. Blurred by the haze of distance already, the season's disappointments seem a small price to pay for this last, exemplary production.
Perhaps most impressively, Robert Falls' staging of this great American play -- probably the greatest of American plays -- isn't merely a fastidious re-creation of the traditionally mournful, fog-enshrouded presentation, either. Here the mist is often dispelled by the roiling currents of emotion running between characters incarnated with such vivid empathy that whole sections of the play burn with unexpected conviction.
The director's superlative cast seems to find new realms of feeling in a play seemingly plumbed to its depths in the nearly 50 years since its Broadway premiere. It remains a devastatingly sad examination of a family damaged beyond repair both by life and by each other. But there is warmth here, too, in a portrait of four isolated individuals drawn together by the depth of suffering that sets them apart from the world. The play's pain also is tempered by the pleasure to be found in witnessing a quartet of great actors meet the immense challenges of these roles with such boldness, authority and imagination.
Vanessa Redgrave's Mary Tyrone is the primary revelation of the evening -- and the season. This celebrated stage actress is noted for her intellectual curiosity and thoroughness, and they pay off here in a portrayal that is complex but never calculated, as rewarding as it is risky. The risk comes in Redgrave's decision to sharply delineate the cruelties that underpin the pathos of O'Neill's morphine- and memory-addicted matriarch, as well as the ravages her disease has visited upon her, both physically and psychologically.
The physical aspects of the performance are perhaps the first to capture our attention: Her spectral presence -- Mary's assertion that she's getting fat has never seemed so ghoulishly deluded -- is enhanced by hands visibly deformed by arthritis, forever struggling to put a stray hair in place. As Mary's anxious need for another dose of morphine begins to steal upon her, the gnarled hands pick nervously at the table or, in a moment of searing poignance, clatter across an imaginary piano.
Then, suddenly, the frailty wrapped in ethereal femininity evaporates, and Mary erupts into startling bursts of emotional -- even physical -- violence. This is a woman truly in the grip of addiction, whose personality has disintegrated under its influence, shattered into a thousand disconnected impulses that she can no longer control. Just as quickly, Mary's rage will dissolve into confused contrition. At other times, she will move from flirtation to maternal warmth to snobbery to vindictiveness in the course of a single speech. It's a wondrous, mesmerizing performance, brave in its hairpin turns from one extreme to another.
Mary is the pivotal character in the play, and Redgrave's multifaceted emotionalism is refracted and reflected in subtle ways in the evening's other performances. The stark contrasts between this family's loving instincts and its seething resentments is described in bold strokes here, on a handsome, subtly toned set by Santo Loquasto that sets them in strong relief. (It is lit with matchless sensitivity to the play's emotional dynamics by Brian MacDevitt.) They begin the play clustered warmly around the breakfast table, natural in their intimacy, but soon they stray into their own private spaces, scratching at each other's sores from a wary distance.
These Tyrones drive each other away with wounding words, then rush to repair the damage they've inflicted with a desperate caress. We are always aware of the characters' conflicting impulses -- denial and confession, love and hate, resentment and forgiveness. It takes physical form: They seem to be always coming together or moving apart. Just after they have viciously squabbled over signs that Mary is succumbing to her addiction again, Brian Dennehy's James gallantly offers his wife his arm to take her in to lunch, and she gratefully takes it. And when Edmund, driven to despair as he watches his mother recede into a drug-induced fog of evasion, hurls the contemptuous words "dope fiend" at her, he next flings himself at her feet, wrapping himself about her legs in abject misery.
Dennehy's James Tyrone is distinguished by its intelligent understatement -- there is little of the hollow ham in his warm, compassionate reading of this character. James' love for Mary has a potent sexual warmth, too -- enfolding her in his arms after an outburst, he traces the contours of her face as if still bewitched by the young girl he married, the girl he insisted join him on the road, setting in motion the unforeseen chain of events that would destroy the family. But this ardent affection's flip side is a seething anger to match Mary's, one that she cannot resist drawing out of him when she is tormented by her own failings. We see clearly here how Mary shares with Jamie a need to find company in her abasement.
Indeed, the revelations of Falls' expansive production (it's a full four hours) often have to do with surprising correspondences between characters that reveal how deeply their wounded psyches are intertwined. Mary usually is allied with her beloved Edmund, played here with still, exhausted equilibrium by Robert Sean Leonard, and not with the bitter Jamie, whom she keeps at a distance. But Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jamie is his mother's son in at least one way: The unusual, placating softness Hoffman brings to Jamie in the play's first two acts is exploded in the last, when he becomes a raging beast under the influence of whiskey, as incapable of controlling his emotions under the influence as Mary is.
A further revelation is how Jamie's deep resentment of his skin-flint father is inflected by the uncanny physical likeness between Dennehy and Hoffman. As they face off tensely against each other in act one, the resemblance brings a new poignance to their antagonism. Jamie's half-hearted attacks seem softened by an innate identification with a man he so plainly resembles. They're like two warring souls destined to share the same skin.
Leonard's doomed, consumptive Edmund, beautifully restrained and eloquent in his sympathetic silences, is always somehow set apart, the "stranger who never feels at home"; he's the family's diseased conscience, and is thus cherished and resented in equal measures. Only Edmund doesn't need to justify or excuse his failings, or blame them on others, because he sees in the family's sufferings not just weakness and folly but the universal condition of man. His anguish comes from the knowledge that it can only be transcended in those moments of escape he describes, when, at sea on a ship, "drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it … for a moment I lost myself -- actually lost my life."
That release from "what life has done to us," as Mary puts it, is what all the Tyrones seek, in a bottle or a syringe. It is what the young Eugene O'Neill, haunted by the ghosts he would only lay to rest in this play, learned to find in the less destructive opiate of art. And it is what art, at its best, provides its audiences, too. To watch this great play performed with such compassion and intelligence is to feel the doors that enclose us in our own experience unlocking, to give us a glimpse of that realm Edmund rhapsodizes about, where "the veil of things as they seem (is) drawn back by an unseen hand," and, "for a second, there is meaning!"