O'Neill's last play, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," is uncommonly beautiful and, it occurred to me while watching last night's sturdy revival at the Cort, the finest love story in American dramatic literature.
The new production, Broadway's third, comes equipped with two sterling performances. Overcoming the relative slightness of her figure in a role the playwright demandingly fashioned for a young woman of gargantuan proportions, Kate Nelligan gives an impassioned, quicksilver performance as Josie Hogan, who keeps house and helps tend the rocky Connecticut soil for her wily, bibulous father, Phil, a tenant farmer. And Jerome Kilty, as unkempt in his own way as Phil's barefoot daughter is in hers, is marvelously funny and real as the father.
Their scrappy reliance upon one another - Hogan's other children have left this grubby existence, the youngest (John Bellucci) seen taking his leave as the play begins - is, of course, an essential dimension to this substantial play. (The four acts have been concentrated in two, the intermission coming at the end of the long first act in this presentation.)
But the heart of the play lies in the moonlit union of the "misbegotten" pair, Josie and James Tyrone Jr., the latter a wrenching portrait of the author's older and alcoholic brother in this heartfelt sequel to "Long Day's Journey Into Night." And as keen and commanding an actor as Ian Bannen is, he lacks the haunting quality without which any account of Tyrone loses its magic.
The scene, the longest in the play and in which Josie holds the sodden and now sleeping "dead" man, drained of the secret that has haunted him, in her arms till dawn, is further diminished by the bald lighting, unaltered until, there strangely having been no "moonlight," a rosy dawn appears as the work nears its finish and Josie rudely wakes her "lover."
Though Bannen jarred me, the force of the play as directed by Nelligan's strength and Kilty's authenticity still proved overwhelming.
David Leveaux has staged it cleanly and confidently enough, permitting it to breathe in all the right places, but if the spare, confined look of the production was his idea, then he was at fault here. Brien Vahey, who has designed suitable costumes for all (the bit parts of the departing son Mike and neighboring landowner Harder are competently set forth by John Bellucci and Michael Tolaydo, respectively), has enclosed his weatherbeaten shanty in a tight cyclorama flatly illuminated, and on a stage that is both raked and sloping from side to side, and that thrusts partway into the audience.
The result is a closeness and nakeness distorting O'Neill's image. There are also bits of treacly incidental music, but they do little real harm.
In the end, all quibbling must give way to O'Neill's power and humanity as expressed by the magnificent Nelligan and superb Kilty and, of course, in the compassionate study of Tyrone, who is at least played with expertise by Bannen.
A Broadway that can bring us two such masterly productions as this and the current revival of "Death of a Salesman" is not only alive, but indispensable to the theater's well-being.
Eugene O'Neill is indisputably one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century. That is obviously the good news. The bad news - not always faced by all - is that he didn't write very well.
He wrote very badly. His sentences often hang in the air like clods of empty earth trying to get down. It is not a pretty sight or sound.
O'Neill was one of the genius spokesmen of the century's dispossessed. His prosaic poetry is universal, his dramatic concepts of life cling, tenuously sometimes, to life itself.
He wrote three great plays - oh, by the way, if you have just broken in, I am writing about Kate Nelligan and Ian Bannen in last night's revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Cort Theater - three great plays, Moon, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and The Iceman Cometh.
O'Neill was a giant talent. His plays all but crush us in their super-human efforts to relate to the human condition. A Moon for the Misbegotten, like all of his great plays, reveals the journey of a spirit, the passing of a soul.
James Tyrone Jr., a character we also meet in Long Day's Journey, is here in Connecticut one day in early September, 1923. He is awaiting probate of his mother's will and, although he doesn't quite know it, he is awaiting absolution for his sins.
The story is set on the farm of Phil Hogan, James' tenant. James, an alcoholic Broadway bum, and son of a famous, now dead actor, is passing the time of day with phil and his daughter Josie, a huge earth-mother of a young woman, and, like most of O'Neill's women, both tough and vulnerable.
Between James and Josie lies a complex relationship based on love and need. Neither is quite sure of the other's feelings. But this day - and more particularly this night - those feelings are to surface, be resolved, and submerge.
O'Neill makes no particular effort to shape his play. The first-act exposition is laid out with all the subtlety of stagehands shifting scenery. The writing is alarmingly clumsy, as if O'Neill were partly telling us the story up to now, partly setting out some geometric theorem.
But as the play goes on, it gathers its own momentum. As Jim's soul seeks its moment of redemption, in a "dawn that didn't come creeping grayly over dirty windowpanes," we capture the essence of O'Neill's sincerity, and the play carries us like a muddy whirlpool to the vortext of our feelings.
O'Neill is living testimony to the fact that if an artist can only bear to tell the total truth for five minutes he will assuredly create a masterpiece.
So far, so good. So far, so O'Neill. But this new Moon rising at the Cort is a moon rising with a difference that perhaps O'Neill never envisaged.
In the United States - largely through the attentions of Jose Quintero, Ted Mann, and a group of remarkable of, what we think of as, O'Neill actors, we have founded an American tradition of the posthumous O'Neill. We know how O'Neill sounds - we hear him, rough and articulately inarticulate in the voices and presences of the likes of Robards, Dewhurst, Scott, and James Earl Jones.
At the Cort we are being presented with a revisionist English version of this O'Neill classic. The director, the young and brilliant David Leveaux, has had no real contact, except in passing, with our own O'Neill tradition.
Ian Bannen is archetypically experienced O'Neill player - but not in this country. Kate Nelligan - the wondrous Miss Nelligan - has also won her spurs in the British theater. Even Jerome Kilty as Phil, the father, although American, has faintly European - and I mean the dear man no harm - undertones.
The end result is, well, different. Remarkably different. Now don't tell me the play was originally given with Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone - I didn't see it and cannot envisage it. I see in this all-American classic Colleen Dewhurst (with fond remembrances of Salome Jens) and Jason Robards. I see their ragged journey - rough, bitter, savage. Full of introspection and swallowed lines.
These Britishers will have none of that. Bannen, in a blazing, white-hot and charred performance, gives us Tyrone as a burnt-out case, an ash-can of a man.
Nelligan is an earth-daughter - technically she is too beautiful for the role, but conscientiously tries gawky on for size - and with Bannen she creates an arc of ashen poetry that sustains, invigorates, and renews O'Neill's vision. They are far more erotic, or, if you like, passionate.
Kilty, perhaps too conventional for either his director or his fellow actors, is, on his different terms, terrific. But it is Bannen, Nelligan and Leveaux who offer this clear, with spent passion, new insight into an old poet.
The purposefully bland design is by Brian Vahay, the conventional lighting is by Marc B. Weiss.
All seem to have done what they were told by Leveaux - who, with his strange actors, catches the play's force and places an unexpectedly new stamp of sensual naturalism on O'Neill. See it. O'Neill will never seem quite the same again.
In the powerful new revival of Eugene O'Neill's ''Moon for the Misbegotten,'' Kate Nelligan isn't wearing a mask, but it's easy to think she is. As Josie Hogan, the misfit daughter of a Connecticut tenant farmer, Miss Nelligan has a blemished and dirty face, and she runs about the stage barefoot with a flat-footed peasant's waddle.
In this guise, it's hard to find the glamorous, fine-boned actress who dominated David Hare's ''Plenty'' last season. Miss Nelligan's high, flat forehead suggests a heritage more Cro-Magnon than aristocratic, and her eyebrows are thick and mannish. Her greasy, matted mane of auburn hair is tucked behind large pink ears. When the actress speaks, her voice matches her appearance. She brays in the coarse brogue of a woman who spends most of her days tending pigs - and most of her nights sleeping with any man who's handy at the tavern in town.
But this startling transformation is nothing compared to what's to come. Miss Nelligan's stunning achievement in the play at the Cort is not the relatively straightforward matter of disguising herself as O'Neill's ''great, ugly cow of a woman.'' Such disguises, while not easy, can be attained with large amounts of greasepaint and craft. It's when Miss Nelligan must tear away her disguise that we confront the seething heart of her performance - and the crushing, primal force of O'Neill's masterpiece.
That moment arrives with the evening's only real event: the nocturnal assignation between Josie and James Tyrone Jr., the visiting Broadway swell whose family owns the Hogan farm. Stripping down to her bare soul in the moonlight - to reveal her secret soft heart to a man for the first time - Miss Nelligan's Josie glows with a madonna's beauty as virginal as nature's. When her face widens into a beatific grin, we feel that flowers are poking through hard, parched earth. And then, to our amazement and distress, that beauty vanishes, like a fleeting dream, as suddenly as it came. When Miss Nelligan puts on Josie's everyday mask again, it's a chalky death mask. As the actress heaves and sobs with the recognition that her life's only moment of truth and communion is over, we're locked right inside O'Neill's hell, wondering why in God's name anyone is subjected to the pain of being born.
O'Neill has no answers. ''A Moon for the Misbegotten,'' the author's last completed work, is a straight, bottomless drop into the agonizing, solitary pit of existence. It's the story of two people who may hope that their revelations of truth will bind them together forever but who arrive instead at the tragic realization that their salvation is but a brief, peaceful waystation on their intersecting paths to separate graves. Yet the salvation they achieve, a selfless and sexless consummation of love, is so real it makes the earth move. God may be dead in ''Moon,'' but the play is illuminated everywhere by human grace.
Perhaps critics will debate forever whether this lyrical work matches its two major predecessors in the canon, ''The Iceman Cometh'' and ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.'' At times, ''Moon'' surpasses those other giants because O'Neill seems to have distilled his theme to its purest form and then transcended it. The illusory pipe dreams that deform his characters are stripped away to expose not only the terror of living but also the human contact that is the only balm for the wounds. No doubt, theatergoers will also argue whether the new ''Moon'' matches the landmark 1973 Broadway production, brilliantly acted by Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards under Jose Quintero's direction. What can be said with certainty is that Miss Nelligan's overwhelming performance will be talked about as long as the debate goes on.
The production containing that performance is an imaginative one, laced with fresh insights into the play and also, it must be said, marred by a major casting error. That error is in the role of Josie's trysting partner. Jim Tyrone is a thinly disguised portrait of O'Neill's elder brother - for whom ''Moon'' is the author's own elegiac act of forgiveness - and he wears a mask as hard as Josie's. It's the pose of the cynical Broadway sport - the failed ham actor who can stomach any disappointment as long as he has a glass of bourbon in one hand and a tart in the other. Mr. Robards fits that mask so well, whether in this play or ''Long Day's Journey,'' that it would be unfair to ask any actor to top the indelible image he created in the part. Unfortunately, the British actor cast here, Ian Bannen, doesn't make it into competition. Mr. Bannen's performance substitutes intelligence for feeling. While Jim is an actor, Mr. Bannen is too silkenly actorish in conveying the character's Times Square bravura. With his beady eyes and smooth, pink face, he fails to embody the dissipation that defines Jim as the walking ruins of the sensitive artist he might have been. Mr. Bannen does capture the ghostliness of a living ''dead man who is walking behind his own coffin,'' but his self-lacerating confessional monologue falls short. When Jim at last removes his own mask to reveal his sin against his mother - the spiritual cancer from which Josie must absolve him - the expiation of guilt seems too sonorous and practiced. We're more aware of Mr. Bannen's technique than Jim's catharsis.
That we're moved by the speech anyway is a tribute to Miss Nelligan, who drinks in the words with a mixture of revulsion and empathy. The actress, whose intense concentration pulls like a chain at our necks throughout, makes us hear the speech as Josie hears it, rather than how it is delivered. That ''Moon'' is usually riveting in spite of the production's crucial weakness is a tribute not simply to the star but to the grave poetry of the text and to the unflagging passion of David Leveaux's staging.
Mr. Leveaux is a 26-year-old British director who should be quarantined in New York until we've seem him direct more American plays. Coming at O'Neill with new eyes, he has seen ''Moon'' for the timeless drama that it is. This production is freed almost entirely from naturalism; it makes palpable Jim's statement that ''there is no present or future - only the past happening over and over again - now.''
The weather-beaten farmhouse, designed by Brien Vahey, is set on a tilted oval against a nearly blank cyclorama; we're not just in 1923 rural Connecticut but in the dreamy, abstracted realm of consciousness where O'Neill seemed to be locating the dead brother that the play wills back to life. Marc B. Weiss's lighting completes the mood. The couple's long journey from night to daybreak is suffused with a magical, luminous aura that heightens the sensation that the universe is standing still so that two lost souls can find their way home.
With the aid of the superb Jerome Kilty, who plays Josie's father, Mr. Leveaux also capitalizes on the raucous Irish humor of Act I. Phil Hogan is a rascal and conniver who arranges the couple's meeting with Machiavellian schemes that aren't as mercenary as they appear. Mr. Kilty, whose bald head and whiskery face are forever flushing with alcohol and choler, is at once a ''crazy old billy goat,'' an impish leprechaun, a wise Puck and, finally, an aged, loving parent. There are schemes within his schemes - not to mention real tears within his drunken jags - and Mr. Kilty serves up the whole brew with a jiglike speed and dexterity worthy of the Abbey Theater.
Still, it's in the three acts that follow the lone intermission that the play achieves its stature, and there, too, Mr. Leveaux's work is muscular. When Josie and Jim circle each other to find common ground, their struggle has a brawling intensity. Jim doesn't just knock a drink out of Josie's hand - he knocks Josie clear across the stage. When Jim later relives his drunken whoring in the train carrying his mother's casket back East from California, his tender, tearful embrace of Josie suddenly blurs involuntarily into a spasm of the crude carnality he practiced on the ''fat blond pig'' who kept him company. Soon after that, Jim is just a baby sleeping in Josie's arms, cradled by Miss Nelligan's healing spirit. ''Everything is far away and doesn't matter - except the moon and its dreams,'' Josie has told her tormented Jim, and, if only for a time, we know the solace of those sweet dreams, too.