Moon for the Misbegotten
by Eugene O'Neil
Starring Kevin Spacey and Eve Best
Brooks Atkinson Theater website
by R. C. Curess, Hugh Dancy , and Boyd Gaines
Belasco Theater, Broadway
by William Shakespeare
starring Richard Fay, Brian Morvant, Uma Incrocci
American Globe Theater
Onstage Winter, ‘07: “Acting Out”
There’s often a conspiracy going on between an actor and his audience about his credibility, in and out of the role being performed. “In Moon for the Misbegotten” (1945), Kevin Spacey twice, briefly during a long speech glanced across the footlights at his audience. He did not say, ‘hello, it’s still me up here’, but that seemed to be his meaning, a reassurance that he remained fully in charge of the business onstage. Since the play is neither deep nor obscure–rather the reverse–his gesture implied what other evidence supports: that playgoers like to be encouraged, maybe even coddled, before transforming themselves into a ready audience. It is an urgent subject requiring more thoughtful attention than the limits of this article permit. Suffice it to say, events onstage welcomed the playgoer.
As for Kevin Spacey being “in charge” of the play, he acts: he weeps, he laments, he shouts, he cries out and cleaves the very air; flagellating his soul as a liar, a cheat, a no good. The moment lasts and lasts; his self abuse seems unending until he finds comfort in a return to infancy with his head in Josie Hogan’s lap. She, Eve Best, is amazing, in a word, a wonderful actress and a find, who manages to balance Mr. Spacey’s over-the-top shenanigans with just the right amount of endurance. If this play is symptomatic, its prize-winning director Howard Davies seems to know O’Neill’s women: essentially maternal; strong, patient, not quite real in their capacity to resist the downward emotional pull of their men.
Still, did O’Neill write the role Ms. Best played? Only one other actress, Coleen Dewhurst, has received consistent praise in this role of Josie Hogan as, perhaps, bigger and better than the play itself earns. O’Neill concentrated on his hero: the boozy, talky, self-indulgent fraud, a victim of sex-in-the- head. The Irish type, familiar as well to Synge, O’Casey, Behan, is in danger of gab; he has male pals, a style of barroom camaraderie, a worldliness that is perfectly faked since he fits the provincial corner of town he never has left. Whether in “The Iceman Cometh” (1946) or “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1948?), in both of which Mr. Spacey has performed, or in the several one act plays preceding, O’Neill’s hero is a handsome loser. “Moon for the Misbegotten” was a sort of final, best chance to arouse an audience’s sympathy and hold onto it firmly until the final curtain. It’s a love story. An alcoholic may not be a sure winner in romantic sweepstakes, but O’Neill persisted with the character from early to late in his play writing career. His father, the celebrated actor James O’Neill, brought the real outlines of the type into high relief.
The stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is too big for an intimate play, a problem common to New York first rank houses. They all confront economical, logistical, public relations problems daunting to producers, let alone directors. Where, precisely, should He and She stand while projecting the emotional curvature (if I may) of unrequited love?
The treasure of this theater season is “Journey’s End” A perfectly, polished production directed by R. S. Sherriff, “Journey’s End” achieves the enviable effect of appearing to be bigger than it is. In part, this results from its subject and setting during WWI in “a dugout in the British trenches near St. Quentin, France.” Jefferson Mason plays the hero, Private Mason, a boy in his first service who worships his commander Captain Hardy. A secret alcoholic, the Captain seethes with closely controlled rage at the world, the war, and his role in it. Nothing much happens in the play, unless, that is, you count the war that catches your breath as it approaches steadily, more and more loudly, until it booms and shakes the theater immediately overhead at the final curtain. It’s a terrific effect. The explosions in the distance at the opening become both symbol and meaning as they close in on the captain in his tent fifty yards from the front. Regular intrusions by Private Mason represent the entire central action as the war front deteriorates. The Captain’s continuing boosts from his bottle achieve the effect of punctuation marks in the suspenseful action of whether he will maintain an image of command. He does. In effect he offers an explanation for his own demeanor when he whirls in fury on the boy frightened, sobbing, refusing to return to the trenches. To paraphrase roughly: ‘Don’t you realize you will be letting down your comrades, those men you stood with moments ago who look to you for same support you must give them. Will you, a deserter, ever be able to faces them (Full shout) Go back (Thundering boom) That is an order! Performances are exemplary.
The same holds true for the fine actors in the current production by American Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, that small gem of a play. It would be lovely to see it once played “small”; but that might offend against Prospero’s grand gestures, big pronouncements, his creation of the “brave new world”. These hardly can be dismissed. Yet under John Basil’s expert direction, this Prospero (Richard Fay) assumes the role of father as persuasively as he commands his magisterial duties on the island (Why the program neglects to name it as “the Bermoothes,” I cannot tell.) Indeed, this impressive Prospero displays all the sway of a tyrant along with every inch of paternal concern for getting his helpless daughter married. Perhaps uniquely among important productions, this one allows full reign to his humanity–he smiles at the “show” of fairies; he gets peremptory with Ferdinand; his speechifying on Miranda’s “virgin knot” even elicits patient nods from all, implying familiarity with his pedantic bent, including from that “thing of darkness” Caliban. Miranda’s reply still ranks among the play’s best comic lines: “Your tale, Sir, would cure deafness.” The production is blessedly free of weighty gestures contrasting Caliban, all animal, with Ariel, all spirit. Mr. Basil trusts his audience to “get it.”
The actors speak marvelously, wonderfully natural English, a pleasure for the ear. No one enunciated iambic pentameters, or ever dipped into that fake British accent so often afflicting lesser players when called upon to be English. For that matter, these actors also move marvelously. As a muscular, and praise-be-the-powers, a sexual Caliban, Brian Morvant invents a skipping hop, or hopping jump to his gait that perfectly suits the tense expectancy in his role. He never stands upright: his body is on the alert for a chance to “brain” the old man.
This nearly flawless presentation held enough surprises to keep the play fresh, for instance, a Trinculo (Mat Sanders) of inspired lunacy in his horseplay as in his lines. For that matter, director Basil gives full faith in credit to these collected clowns, too often overshadowed by exclusive attention to the “monster” Caliban. The distribution of emphases results in a much funnier text all throughout than is produced by the more usual efforts to dramatize the jokes and or act out the bawdy double meanings. The same holds for the play’s magic, woven all through rather than, say, in the particulars of Prospero’s creating a storm with a wave of his wand, or casting a pall of sleep on the royal shipwrecks. The chief responsibility for creating the idea and image of magic derives from the hovering presence of this exceptionally beautiful Ariel (Elizabeth Keefe). She moves, almost floats, silently alert, “as fleet as thought.”
The lovers also fall into perspective as merely a convention, one element and that not the most compelling, on which to hang the slight plot. Two inimical brothers flung together by shipwreck on an “uninhabited” island find reconciliation; and their respective son and daughter bring love and marriage to begin a “brave new world.” A fairy tale. The island was owned by a witch who mothered its half human “monster” Caliban. He is “all the subjects” that Duke Prospero has, shipwrecked there fourteen (?) years ago with his baby daughter Miranda. History repeats. In the play’s present, Prospero’s brother Duke Alonso now is shipwrecked on the same island with his son Ferdinand. So royalty will retain its power in the story telling way of marriage between great families. There is not much drama or conflict. Caliban in his readiness to rape Miranda and murder Prospero represents a perpetual threat of regression to mere animal life. He lives in a cage. But the play’s action is about restoration, reconciliation, and a renewal of civilization. In that aim, Prospero at the end “abjures” his “rough magic” on the island to return to rule Milano. None of Shakespeare’s regents may shake off responsibility. Richard II deposes himself and is murdered as a result.
The costumes (by Jim Parks) are gorgeous in fabric, color, and design, utterly splendid, for a change justifying historical comment on Elizabethan love of splendor. The touch of authenticity here refers to the fact that Elizabethan nobility often contributed their second best gowns to players. Otherwise, this excellent production was especially moving given the play’s position as epilogue to thirty six plays in fourteen years of writing for theater. It might then make a shred of sense to hear a farewell from WS himself when Prospero lays aside “his art.”
In this essay:
“Moon for the Misbegotten” by Eugene O”Neill. Kevin Spacey (Jim Tyrone); Eve Best (Josie Hogan); others.
“Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff. Directed by David Grindley. With John Curless (Captain Hardy); Hugh Dancy (Capt. Stanhope); Boyd Gaines (Lieutenant Osborne); Jefferson Mays (Private Mason); others
“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare. For the American Globe Theatre. Directed by John Basil. Featuring Richard Fay (Prospero); Brian Morvant (Caliban); Uma Incrocci (Miranda); Mat Sanders (Trinculo); Ariel (Elizabeth Keefe); others.