Location: American Airline Theatre, New York (Roundabout Theatre Company)
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange, John Gallagher, Jr., and Michael Shannon
Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a day in the life of acclaimed matinee idol James Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne) and his family, wife Mary and their grown sons James Jr. “Jamie” and Edmund, played by Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr., respectively. The play starts cheerily enough, at the conclusion of their family breakfast at their run-down Connecticut cottage house by the sea, where everybody seems in good spirits. James steps with Mary from the dining room (Gabriel in the flesh. Squeaaa!) and wraps loving arms around her, praising her for her good health, specifically for the weight she has recently gained. Mary blushes like a school girl, insisting she has put on too much weight. James will hear none of that. He likes her fat and wants her to stay that way, something he expresses several times within the first few minutes of the opening act. Laughs abound between the brothers, still in the dining room. Mary wonders what they could be laughing about. James, a bit of a crank at times, his nose stuck in the morning paper, grumbles that the joke is most certainly at his expense. He launches into a small tirade against eldest son, Jamie, which Mrs. Tyrone quickly squashes. Mary then teases James about his snoring the previous night (it was difficult for her to tell the difference between it and the foghorn outside) and his appetite at breakfast.
“I’ve the digestion of a man of 25, if I am 65,” declares James dramatically, before settling into his chair for his after-breakfast cigar. (Gabriel lights an actual match here and holds it, flame burning, delivering several lines of dialogue before lighting the cigar and extinguishing the match. He held the match so long I worried the flame would burn his fingers. Don’t do that to me, Gabriel.) James continues to praise Mary for her fatness. Mary giggles and fusses over him. They are a couple much in love, even after 35 years of marriage.
It’s typical family stuff. Nothing much awry, it seems. Some tension, perhaps, but what family doesn’t have that? The first inkling that all is not well with the Tyrone family is when Edmund has his first coughing fit. One begins to suspect here just how fragile Mary is, as James (quickly) and Jamie (reluctantly) assure her it is certainly only a summer cold that ails Edmund, as she, stubbornly, almost desperately, declares, even though they all know it is likely consumption, the term for tuberculosis in 1912. Indeed, Jamie seems almost bored at the prospect of protecting his mother from the inevitable truth. The moment Mary is out of earshot, James turns and rails against his eldest son, admonishing him for being so careless with his words around Mary. This turns into a tirade against Jamie’s lack of ambition and his drunken, whoring ways. From here the play is off, full steam.
Gabriel and Michael Shannon are powerful in their scenes and spar well with one another. Michael is a tall man, six foot three, perhaps, with a booming voice, and, though he plays Jamie with a bit of a weary slouch, his height is a contrast to Gabriel, who, at five foot ten, plays fading matinee idol James as a shrinking man, both physically and emotionally. Though strong, his voice cracks and breaks, especially when speaking passionately. Their performances are strong enough, their chemistry together is great enough, that it is easy to accept before long this is indeed father and son, despite their physical disparity.
Gabriel is phenomenal from the start. It would be hard for me to say otherwise. I’m aware of my bias, as I admire him so greatly, but he’s truly wonderful here. He uses his own Irish accent but what a difference between his approach here with his voice, and the voice he used as Dr. Paul Weston in “In Treatment”, for instance, which seemed to me to be his own. James is a matinee idol and comes off as such straight away. James is always on, always performing, something the three other Tyrone family members chide him about, to his face and behind his back. Every phrase he utters might as well be straight out of a Shakespearean play.
Jessica Lange, quite simply, blew me away. For the majority of the play, she orbits around the men and the stage, often stepping backward, her head turned away from them, distracted, fiddling with strands of her increasingly unkempt hair, as she struggles against the scrutiny of her family and the power of addiction. Mary is a morphine addict and has been since shortly after Edmund was born, some 24 years earlier. Ms. Lange switches from an doting, loving mother and wife to bitter, hardened addict so quickly you are left with whiplash. The mood swings surprise you, so much so that the moments are initially comical, even in their sadness. I found myself chuckling with the rest of the audience, at her sudden accusations, until it sank in how devastating the accusation had been. Jessica swings seamlessly between these moods. She steps backward, refusing to make eye contact and, suddenly, in the next moment, steps forward, her eyes locked on her target, most often James, hurling her accusations, and the next, she’s orbiting again, pulling and twisting at the lace at the sleeves of her dress, battling to regain control.
The men are often still as statues, slack jawed, as she orbits; paralyzed, helpless to do anything but watch as their wife and mother unravels before their eyes, yet again. Their exchanged glances relay their shock, then desperation, then heartbreak, and ultimately resignation, at which point each man turns to the whiskey bottle. Mary’s arbitrary accusations escalate as the “poison” (as James calls it) takes her over, ever increasingly. When Jessica as Mary rails against him, Gabriel bows and turns his head away from her, holding up a shaking hand as a shield against her words, in a fruitless effort to protect from the pain of her accusations. As day rolls into night, and the whiskey and morphine really start flowing, there is nowhere for their respective pains to land but on each other. At one point, Mary leans over the banister of the staircase, on her way up for another morphine fix, long past the will to lie about her intentions, and spews at James, her voice biting and dripping with sarcasm, “Forgive me dear, I didn’t mean to be so bitter.”
These characters are all unreliable narrators, so to speak. They each have their own perspectives of what has transpired over the years, and why. Every indictment is indefensible with anything other than an excuse or rational. Does intention matter when your actions have caused somebody you love so much pain? Yes, maybe, but then again, maybe not? Who is to blame here? Is anybody to blame? Or, is what is simply just what is? That is the question I found myself asking.
James is a cheap “miser” who thinks more about his whiskey and “the value of a dollar” than much of anything else, but once you hear of the abject poverty he was raised in, how he and his mother and siblings were once homeless and starving, somewhere during Act III, you understand. Mary is a bitter, cutting dope fiend, but once you hear of the infant son, Eugene, she lost, and the clear postpartum depression she suffered from after giving birth to Edmund, a child she accuses James of encouraging her to have as a way of forgetting Eugene, you understand. James Jr is an unambitious drunk who likes his whores and rides his father’s coat tails as an actor on Broadway, but after learning of his childhood, witnessing his mother’s addiction, and the hand he had in Eugene’s death, albeit unintentional, you understand. Edmund (the Eugene O’Neill of this autobiographical play) is the sensitive one, the writer who idolizes “miserable” writers like Nietzsche and Ibsen, much to James’s Shakespeare-loving chagrin. Edmund is often the diplomat of the family, discouraging the infighting. He’s been protected much of his life from the effects of his mother’s addiction, protected by both James and James Jr., until it became impossible to hide. Now that he suffers from consumption, often a fatal diagnosis at the time, you understand it when he finally loses it, shouting at Mary, “It's hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother!” This is especially true after morphine-induced Mary declares to Edmund that his birth is the reason she became addicted to the morphine in the first place, after James sent her to a “cheap motel” doctor who had nothing but morphine to offer her for her postpartum depression.
I watched an interview with the cast after opening night and they all looked exhausted, Jessica and Gabriel especially. After seeing this play it is clear why. Not only is it a wordy, marathon of a play, with a running time of three hours and 45 minutes, the subject matter is highly emotionally draining. It is emotionally draining to watch. I can’t imagine what they leave on the stage as performers. Everything, it seems. I don’t know how they muster the energy to perform this monster twice on Saturdays. Gabriel and Jessica walked off stage with their arms around each other after curtain call; holding each other up, perhaps. (Admittedly, they could have been simply congratulating each other on their performances. I have a tendency to romanticize these things. It was touching, either way.)
Colby Minifie has a small but hilarious turn as the young, Irish summer housemaid, Kathleen. Kathleen likes her whiskey as much as her boss, Mr. Tyrone, a man she seems quite keen on. She teases Edmund at one point that he’ll never be as good looking at his father and then scolds Mary lightly when Mary complains about James’s drinking, saying there are much worse things for a man to be addicted to than whiskey.
I came to this play for Gabriel, who is as beautiful as ever, found myself mesmerized by Ms. Lange and fell in love and heartbreak with Edmund and Jamie, thanks to the performances by John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Shannon. Kudos, all.
Random thought: The men drink so much “whiskey” in the final act that I found myself wondering if and how badly they had to pee by the end.