“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” – sort of

The program that comes with the off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theater says the play on offer is Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill. And it’s true that every word spoken on the stage is by O’Neill.

It’s also true that it’s about half the length of normal productions (something that the estate approved).

So, is it really Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

The real Long Day’s Journey is about a lot of things that this version is not. For one thing, if you move it from when it was originally set – August, 1912 – much of O’Neill’s social commentary is gone. This is a very Irish play, and it’s set at a time when fierce anti-Irish sentiment was still fresh in mind. Much of James Tyrone’s life has been about denying where in the system he was born. “I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife,” he says. From the deepest poverty, he reinvented himself as a prince of Shakespeare, turning himself into a faux-aristocrat by acquiring a posh accent and invoking classical rhythms and phrases in his extemporaneous speech.

The play O’Neill wrote is a war of language. In contrast to the stentorian pronouncements of their father, his sons constantly use slang and reference literature that the father finds appalling. And they twist his precious Shakespeare to mock him (“the Moor, I know his trumpet”).

All that is gone in this version.

Indeed, the whole theatrical system that sustained James Tyrone as a star for years in a single play no longer exists in this country, so his career in this updated version makes no sense. Today, if someone were going to throw away their career as a serious actor, it’s more likely they would get stuck for dozens of years making big money playing a crime-fighter in one of the crappier TV series. But director O’Hara can’t do this because I’m sure the agreement with the estate specifies that all the language must be O’Neill’s.

O’Hara has edited and collaborated on design elements to bring to mind current concerns – covid and the opioid crisis in particular. But I’m betting that most people watching a traditionally-set production would have thought of these parallels on their own. In making the implicit explicit, O’Hara (unintentionally, I’m sure) is condescending to the audience.

In sum, if I were introducing someone to the play, this is not the production I’d want them to see.

On the other hand, if you know the play already, I recommend it. This may be your only chance to see Elizabeth Marvel take a crack at playing Mary Tyrone and that’s not to be passed up.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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