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Even with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne, 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' fails to connect

Even with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne, 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' fails to connect
Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in "Long Days Journey Into Night." (Joan Marcus)

— Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," considered by some to be the greatest American drama, is a marathon of family squabbling. Grueling in the wrong hands, the play's relentless attacks and counterattacks have a revelatory power when the right cast comes together.

On paper, the Roundabout Theatre Company revival, starring two-time Oscar-winner Jessica Lange and the magnetic Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, looks like a "Long Day's Journey" for our time. But I found myself arguing as heatedly with this disconnected production as the characters were quarreling with one another.

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Roundabout's decision to import a director from England for this American classic became a point of contention for me by intermission. I'm not usually drawn into these kinds of turf battles, but there was so little sense of place in Jonathan Kent's production, which had its official Broadway opening Wednesday at the American Airlines Theatre.

Byrne's Irish accent was at full strength, though O'Neill specifies that James Tyrone "got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife" to become a Shakespearean player on the American stage. (Here, the brogue remains, but the line is cut.) Mary's voice is described as having "a touch of Irish lilt," but there's little of the old country in Lange's Tennessee Williams-by-way-of-Minnesota delivery.

The couple's two adult sons look as if they come not just from different wombs but from distant worlds. Michael Shannon, an actor who has been sensational in plays by Tracy Letts ("Bug" and "Killer Joe," in particular) plays James "Jamie" Tyrone Jr. in the stealthy manner of a Midwestern secret service agent. John Gallagher Jr.'s Edmund, donning a little sea-faring mustache, looks like he just popped out of a stage trunk.

The idea of home for this family has been as elusive as it has been embattled. James Tyrone is an actor who has enslaved himself to the same moneymaking play, living on the road with his wife in second-rate hotels full of dubious company.

Their only home is their Connecticut summer house, where their sons would return from school and later from their dissolute wanderings to spend time with their parents for a few combustible weeks a year.

All of this is to say that the Tyrones aren't meant to be cozy with one another. They play-act at being a family like fumbling amateurs. But I found it hard to believe that the characters were even related. The actors simply don't meld.

Kent, who was a co-director of London's Almeida Theatre, has staged acclaimed London productions of "Sweeney Todd" and "Gypsy," both starring Imelda Staunton. I know Kent mostly from his Shakespearean forays with Ralph Fiennes (a "Coriolanus" and "Richard II" that came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a "Hamlet" that made it to Broadway) and don't associate him with the fine-grained realism of midcentury American playwriting.

This Roundabout production doesn't compel me to revise my opinion. Kent's staging is full of sharp scenic strokes — the fog rolls in on Tom Pye's neutral set with the enigmatic force of a Whistler painting — but the only reason to sit through this nearly four-hour drama is to reexperience the play's psychology through the dynamic interplay of a new set of actors.

This is where the production falls short. There are some bold interpretive moves by individual performers, but acting is charged by reaction and here those batteries are dead.

Lange, perhaps the most emotionally supple actress of her generation, portrays Mary as cut off from her loved ones by her morphine addiction. I saw Lange in Robin Phillips' West End production in 2000, and she's continuing to pursue the same unsentimental line that Mary, fixated on her next fix, may be even more of a monster than her grandstanding, tight-fisted husband.

This approach worked better in London, where Lange played opposite Charles Dance, who brought an imposing patriarchal authority to James Tyrone. Byrne gives us a softer and more sorrowful characterization. He's a tyrant with a sore conscience and an accessible heart. Tyrone may have failed his family time and again, but Mary is the real thorn in everyone's side.

The effect of this shifting character balance is a smaller play about addiction and its repercussions in the home. O'Neill knew alcoholics the way Wordsworth knew daffodils, but he didn't write a 12-step drama.

"Long Day's Journey Into Night" is a play about the impossibility of family intimacy, about the push and pull of those inseverable ties. Mary's condition is symptomatic of the domestic failure, not its principal cause.

The ghosts of this most haunted of autobiographical O'Neill plays have been strangely banished. The love that makes the anger so acutely painful seems to have died so long ago that rigor mortis has set in.

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Lange gives us maternal gestures without much credible maternal feeling. She powerfully taps into the fury of a woman whose marriage to a matinee idol turned into miserable melodrama, and she hints that Mary's bereavement over a child damaged her capacity to bond with her youngest and most vulnerable son, Edmund.

But this is all worked out apart from the ensemble. As the morphine takes hold of Mary, Lange becomes increasingly mannered, resorting to the "poetic" flourishes she brought to her stage portrayals of Williams' greatest female characters, Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie."

The production's most arresting moments come with Tyrone's late-night soul-searching, in which he defends himself to his unforgiving sons over countless glasses of whiskey. The rumbling inwardness of Byrne's portrayal sympathetically clarifies the historical basis for Tyrone's compromised life. No amount of wealth or theatrical success could overcome the poverty and insecurity of his childhood. Byrne's Tyrone recognizes this, but to his sons, this recognition is too late.

Shannon's disparate physical presence in this clan isn't easy to get past, but his performance gathers strength when rays of tenderness break through the storm of Jamie's recriminations. Gallagher's Edmund is credible only when he coughs. His lungs are weakened from tuberculosis, a worsening medical condition that is the cause of much denial and consternation during this agonizing reunion. But so little else registers as true in his portrayal.

When Gallagher delivers Edmund's famous speech to his father about his one moment of existential sublimity at sea, his strained lyricism suggests that Edmund doesn't really feel any of this — that's he's just reciting words he once strung together in a tearful drunken reverie. This is a defensible interpretation, but Gallagher, a Tony winner for "Spring Awakening," acts as if he were competing in a monologue contest.

If great ensembles are a credit to their directors, ineffective ones point to where the blame should be laid. The psychology of a play like "Long Day's Journey Into Night" must be arrived at collectively by a company. Kent, however, seems more interested in conducting the stage imagery and mood. When Lange's Mary drags out her wedding dress in a morphine stupor at the end, the theatricality of the moment is crisply captured, but the emotional meaning is attenuated. Lacking the ensemble dynamism that makes possible unforeseen discoveries, this O'Neill outing felt like an endless exercise in Beckettian waiting.

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