Everyone is scared of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Even Eugene O’Neill: Once he had written this “play of old sorrow,” he locked the script in a vault and instructed his heirs not to publish it until 25 years after his death. His widow overruled him almost immediately, resurrecting O’Neill both as a force in the American theater (he won a posthumous Pulitzer in 1957 for Long Day’s) and as a genius, after audiences and critics had dismissed him from the pantheon. Something in this too-private, too-honest masterpiece rolled the stone from his tomb.
Protected by what he thought would be a quarter-century of secrecy, O’Neill barely disguised the O’Neills as the Tyrones: His father, the blowhard, skinflint theater idol James; his mother, Mary, drifting back into morphine addiction; his charming older brother Jamie drinking himself to death; and himself, renamed Edmund — the youngest, raddled with tuberculosis and his family’s curdled hopes. The operatic play condenses their tragedy to one summer day, the day the family learns Mary has relapsed and Edmund gets his chilling diagnosis.
For the Audible-produced version now at the intimate Minetta Lane Theatre, director Robert O’Hara and his company (led by the theatrical power couple Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) have made some daring adjustments to make it less of an intimidating, unassailable monument. They’ve pared it down and sped it up, performing it in two intermissionless hours instead of the usual three and a half. They’ve also contemporized the setting from 1912 to 2020, using design — Clint Ramos litters their Connecticut house with Clorox wipes and Amazon boxes — and clever cutting. They eliminate the maid, Cathleen, so now Mary (Marvel) reminisces to an empty house instead of a chatty Irish girl, and they’ve swept out many period phrases and literary allusions. This last choice does leave the brothers Edmund and Jamie without much to say to each other, since poetry was their shared love. But Swinburne and Wilde date. So out they go.
The show’s casting also disrupts old ideas of the characters, suggesting new avenues of meaning. Camp, king of the character actors, takes on the matinee idol James, while Marvel, always a tower of evident strength onstage, must find a way to dissolve as Mary. Jason Bowen plays the dissipated Jamie as a noisy drunk instead of a weak one, and Ato Blankson-Wood’s wry Edmund is, unusually, a little cool to his family’s pain, rather than a thin-skinned reflection of it. O’Hara has said that the casting has been colorblind rather than color-conscious, but there’s something pointed in watching a white James shout at his two Black sons about riding his coattails. Casting without regard for type also makes some illuminating against-the-grain readings possible. For instance, according to O’Neill, the real James sold and cheapened his talent, corrupting his theatrical gift to make money. Every other James I’ve seen obeys the playwright’s description: they boom Shakespeare quotes at their children in the plummy voice of a man-turned-ham. But Camp’s a trickster and dazzler in every moment, and when he says those same lines, we think, God, he’s good. What if everyone believes he’s a joke, but secretly he’s not? As with other hints of hope, it just tightens the tragedy’s noose.
The family’s drama of four-way blame and regret doesn’t progress so much as it grinds down; it’s a dirge, written with the dogged, repetitious rhythms of addiction and self-delusion. Each family member has at least one monologue that’s like an aria — they cannot stop confessing and remembering and tearing one another apart. Given all this language, a modernization, even where carefully thought through, will bump against its original circumstances. We roll with it for a long time, though, untroubled at first when Edmund’s tuberculosis is conflated with COVID, nodding at how precisely Mary’s addiction maps onto the modern opioid crisis. There are plenty of places in which the updating gives us something new and precious, something fresh to consider about this old, frightening story. In the final quarter, though, as we hear more about the particulars of the family’s medical issues, this mapping slips.
Perhaps we notice the anachronisms because the production’s electricity dims in the last section. Marvel’s exquisitely observed performance of an addict losing touch fingertip by fingertip is riveting, but eventually the text shifts towards Edmund, and the show hasn’t quite worked out his role. At first it seems that we are turning from COVID and opioids to another 2020 problem: isolated young people’s precarious mental health. But after its inventive treatment of addiction, here it falters. Even in the brothers’ theoretically climactic scene, in which Jamie snatches his support away from the desperate Edmund, O’Hara doesn’t give Blankson-Wood and Bowen the same choreographic or emotional attention that he does the rest of the production. The actors are at sea, and though Bowen does some excellent drunk acting, their moments together don’t strike deep notes.
Some of the second-half stumbling lies in design choices (a weird glowing skeleton projection throws things off the rails) and orchestration — O’Hara and sound designer Palmer Hefferan allow some of the actors, murmuring in contemporary cinematic style, to get too mumbly for too long. (It’s called Audible, dammit.) The root-and-branch editing also start to have an effect: O’Neill’s odd, bulky dramaturgy does have a logic, and as we move towards the ending, we start to feel all O’Hara’s cuts as a loss of mass; the original’s monumentality may have been what gave the play momentum.
Tragedians of the American mid-century — O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller — tended to write about themselves as sensitive young men, telling us just how their monstrous parents screwed them up. A revival such as this, held in a new position against modern light, casts that self-regard into shadow — by shifting the emphasis, completely, to the parents. They fight so hard for each other! O’Hara begins the evening with an extended, silent preshow scene: as dawn breaks, Marvel does yoga in the living room, while Camp ambles around with a takeout breakfast in a bag, winking at her and laughing happily under his breath. The silent minutes tick by, but everyone from O’Hara to the couple onstage to the audience clearly want to stretch this sweet sequence out for as long as possible. For that long instant we bask in their hard-won, casual joy; they’ve clearly come through a trial and believe they’re on the other side. What’s more, Camp and Marvel make us briefly believe that this time their warmth might actually outlast the darkness. Maybe this is the show where James and Mary finally win! It’s so easy to picture: It would never have to be night, and they could stay in this long, beautiful day forever.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at the Minetta Lane Theatre through February 20.