Where to begin…? Perhaps with an anecdote. Attending the film version of David Mamet’s American Buffalo a long time ago, I was bemused when the elderly woman seated next to me got up and stormed out after a few minutes. “This isn’t a Western,” she groused.
If you walked into a movie theater showing Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018) chances are you knew you were getting a Chinese movie whose third hour was in 3D and not an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork. But that film may seem less idiosyncratic than this severely abridged, intermissionless version of the play, an Audible Theater production now playing at the Minetta Lane. Why is Donald Trump looming at us from a TV monitor positioned onstage? What’s with the FedEx boxes and other contemporary bric-a-brac? Why are James and Mary Tyrone, the tormented couple at the center of O’Neill’s family earthquake, wearing sunglasses, shorts, and sweatpants? And, from time to time, mirroring us in the audience, masks?
This is a shortened day’s journey into night, and also a time-jumped one, 110 years to the present to be exact. The addicted Mary, it’s implied, is walked wounded from the opioid epidemic; coughing Jamie, her youngest son, is weak and declining from COVID, news of which haunts the CNN briefings on the monitor. (Poor Doc Hardy, the overburdened and much-discussed physician hired by skinflint James to look after them; maybe someday we’ll get a staging from his POV). For all of the modernizing the first part of this V.2 is familiar, with the four characters (the quartet is completed by the self-hating elder son, Edmund) talking around one another, professing an illusory happiness that is shattered and reassembled, again and again. After years of marriage Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel, the Lunt and Fontanne of downtown theater (and character actors par excellence on film and TV besides), know that couples share a secret language of their own and in the early going let us in on the looks and gestures. It’s amusing, like watching old pros in a comedy-drama streaming on Hulu.
But it can’t stay that way for long, not with Edmund drowning in booze and Jamie simply drowning in his consump–err, COVID–agonies. (The diseases don’t work the same way; still, we’re obliged to roll with the metaphor, and drop-ins by the former guy rather than the excised Cathleen the maid.) Drawn from his own life O’Neill found the play so heart-rending to write he insisted it not be performed until years after his death. It’s a classic example of something very narrow and specific widening to become universal–you’re bound to find something of your own family experience in there, line by painful line. To fully work, to cast its spell, takes time, however. Director Robert O’Hara (a Tony nominee for Slave Play) throws open the window before we’re fully immersed, leaving us confused. Camp and Marvel hold their own but the compression takes its toll on co-stars Ato Blankson-Wood (Edmund, and also a Slave Play Tony nominee) and Jason Bowen (Jamie). Characters we get to know gradually are here saddled with info-dumps of exposition, monotonously delivered. It’s no big deal that the performers are Black; it is a big deal that Edmund and Jamie are blanks.
Most of Audible’s New York productions have been solo shows, so I’m not sure what listeners at home will get from some of O’Hara’s staging, like Mary wreathed in bacterial projections and seeming to climb the stairs as an X-ray. (I’m pretty sure that’s what I saw, anyway; I can’t unsee it.) And they won’t get much from Marvel’s final “mad” scene, which ends with a flourish that would have had much more impact if it had been properly built up. Doing something “different” with this Journey Into Night doesn’t pay off with anything stimulating. This is a curious production, a portable O’Neill that skims the surface, plays dress-up with ill-suited concepts, and confuses the pain of our era with his.