If you catch the matinée of this revived titan of American theater, you really will spend a long day journeying from day into night; if it’d opened in the fall instead of the spring, you’d go in seeing daylight and leave in the dark. The 1912-set play’s characters have an even longer day than the audience, withstanding an exhausting stream of emotional revelations and endless confessions that lasts from breakfast to midnight. My God, if this is what one day is like with these people, imagine how fatiguing a whole life would be?
So maybe it’s no wonder that all the men have turned to whiskey and the one woman to morphine—as a bulwark against the persistent accusation, blame, and recrimination, both external and self-imposed. Jessica Lange, as Mary Tyrone, one of the American stage’s great roles, is always reminding her husband, James Sr. (Gabriel Byrne), and two grown sons how they ought to act toward each other and themselves: “You shouldn’t treat him with such contempt” or “You shouldn’t drink now.” It’s a rollercoaster-y turn, scolding, pleading, frightened, defiant, desperate, and broken. Late in the play, Mary horrifyingly contorts herself across the sitting-room table, twisted out of a rocking chair, straining for her husband’s touch. Otherwise, she endlessly putters with unrelievable worry; if Lange keeps a step counter in her nightgown pocket, I’m sure she meets her daily goal at the end of every performance, after nervously pacing the stage for about 200 minutes.
Then there are all the calories she must burn just by talking. Lange plays Mary’s logorrhea as a defense mechanism, a way to stop herself from having to acknowledge the hard truths about herself and her family that she clearly knows in her heart: that she’s a junkie, that her husband and eldest son, James (Michael Shannon), despise each other, and that her youngest son, Edmund (John Gallagher Jr.), is dying of consumption. It’s a melodramatic motif that Eugene O’Neill borrowed from 19th-century opera, but not without a few wisecracks: “What I’m afraid of,” the older, nonconsumptive son tells his father, “is, with your Irish bog-trotter idea that consumption is fatal, you’ll figure it would be a waste of money to spend any more than you can help.”
The Roundabout’s production by Jonathan Kent is respectfully conservative; it’s shadelessly lit (by Natasha Katz) for much of its near-four-hour running time, evoking the drama’s openness, or at least its frankness. And it’s set in a period-appropriate living room (designed by Tom Pye), furnished with the attractive but unostentatious trappings you’d expect in the home of a miserly landowner constantly complaining about his liquidity. Most flamboyant is the expressionistic sound design by Clive Goodwin, which features a bit too much crashing surf when the characters stare off into deep space. Otherwise, the staging is functional, a backdrop for the actors, who are the focus; the stage even slopes slightly downward so you can get a better view of them.
In this production, Gallagher, a theater actor best known off the stage for playing Jim Harper on The Newsroom and “That Other Guy” in 10 Cloverfield Lane, again takes on a thankless role: less prominent, no one’s favorite, more about reacting to the other characters than being reacted to. But he does so with dignity. It’s an excellent performance as his mother’s protector and apologist, concealing his hacking coughs when he can, drinking his way into act-four reproachfulness, when he stands up to his father.
The speeches in the second half offer each of the four major characters chances to show off their chops; these spotlight speeches border on indulgent, but the actors here make meals of them, especially Byrne, who’s most committed and honest at his most excited, full of self-awareness and regret. Otherwise, he seems in respectable-actor mode, giving a technically unassailable performance that’s also bloodless and mannered—a Great Actor Acting Greatly, but devoid of real passion or personal insight.
That’s in contrast to Shannon and his delightfully unexpected choices—his sarcastic readings of seemingly straightforward lines and his fist-slamming exasperation at moments that wouldn’t seem to warrant it. Shannon’s angsty actor, the sneering son, is a role felt in the fullest—and, in O’Neill’s daylong marathon of passions, there’s a whole lot for him to feel.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is now playing at the Roundabout Theatre.