The current revival of Nobel Prize-winning playwright O'Neill's most autobiographical work at the Plymouth Theater is outstanding for its all-star cast of Vanessa Redgrave as the morphine-addicted mother, Brian Dennehy as the drunken father, Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of the wastrel sons and Robert Sean Leonard as the other. All have been nominated for Tony Awards for their performances, and the play -- lovingly directed by Robert Falls -- has been nominated for best revival.
This is the melodramatic domestic tragedy that made the dysfunctional family fashionable as a subject for the stage when it was premiered in 1956 after O'Neill's death with Frederic March as the father. It wallows in the disclosure of scalding family secrets, obsessive recriminations, hurtful nagging, roiling anger, and even violence.
But there also is pity, affection, and love lurking just below he surface, though rarely expressed. In writing a dedication of the play to his wife, O'Neill described it as a work of "old sorrow, written in blood and tears" and asked that it not be produced until 25 years after his death. Carlotta O'Neill waited only three years to bring it to Broadway.
It is an old-fashioned play with three acts set in the wood-walled living room of James and Mary Tyrone's sprawling, roughly finished summer home on the Connecticut shore. Tyrone, once a famous Shakespearean actor, is taking a respite from touring in "The Count of Monte Cristo," a second-rate swashbuckler that he has let take over his career and reduce him to a hack, simply because it is a no-risk money-maker.
Mary Tyrone is just home from a sanitarium, supposedly cured of the addiction she acquired from medications prescribed by hack hotel doctors while traveling on the theatrical road with her husband. James Jr. (Jamie), a failed actor, hangs around the house drinking with his father and driving him to distraction. His younger brother Edmund, who wants to be a poet and is the playwright's alter ego, is coming down with tuberculosis.
James Tyrone is the role most fully characterized by O'Neill, writing about his own father about whom he had ambivalent feelings.
The actor is a penurious curmudgeon, repeatedly inveigled into buying cheap real estate in the hope of making a killing and willing to cut corners in spending, even when hazardous to his family's health and welfare. He holds himself up to his sons as an industrious model they might follow, although he has always taken the easy way out especially in the job of being a father.
Dennehy turns in an impressive performance as the blustery Tyrone, managing to cash in on all the Irish charm O'Neill writes into this character, but it is Vanessa Redgrave as his betrayed wife who really dominates this production. Her Mary Tyrone is one of the great performances of the American stage in recent years and surely deserves a Tony Award, which would be this veteran actress' first such honor.
Starting off as a subdued whisperer, a shortcoming Redgrave should address if audiences are to understand what she is saying, she gets up to full steam by the middle of the first act and never lets down in a virtuoso portrayal that combines girlish seductiveness with the cunning of a practiced shrew.
She can shift from loving wife and mother to manipulative harridan with one offstage injection of her narcotic of choice. Just when you are feeling sympathetic toward Mary, Redgrave gives her a nasty twist that is so repulsive that you almost wish you had not witnessed it, just as you wish to shut out the transparent lies she tells to cover up her addiction.
And yet she is supremely pitiable, never more so than when she wanders around the stage in the final scene in a morphine dream. She drags her moldering wedding dress behind as she recalls falling in love with James Tyrone at first sight, even though marrying an actor in those days meant social ostracism for a young girl of good family such as she.
Philip Seymour Hoffman resembles Dennehy enough to really be his offspring and his performance as Jamie makes an audience feel the pain and jealousy of a son who is constantly rejected by his father although they are cut from the same cloth. He also conveys beautifully the protective feeling he has for his sensitive younger brother, Edmund, played diffidently by Robert Sean Leonard in an attractive performance marred only by being too robust to be a consumptive.
Fiana Toibin, a pert young Irish actress with a brogue of almost impenetrable thickness, is given a wonderful scene as the Tyrone's maid-of-all-work who is the only confidante of her oft-drugged mistress. But she is kept mostly in the barely glimpsed kitchen of Santo Loquasto's fabulously evocative set, which also includes a bit of a porch looking out to sea.
Loquasto also has been nominated for a Tony for scenic design. He designed he costumes, too, carefully observed recreations of styles popular just prior to World War II. The year of the play is 1912 and the Titanic must have sunk just prior to the long day spent with the Tyrones, but events in the outside world are never mentioned.
O'Neill hermetically seals his audience into an anguished world that is sinking under the weight of familial grievances that animate the self-destructive Tyrones. The journey of a splendid cast into the playwright's black night of oblivion is one that theater-goers will never forget, and this soul-searching revival of the most memorable of all of O'Neill's more than 50 plays is not to be missed before it ends its limited run Aug. 31.