First: apologies to any English theatergoer who ever suffered through an American actor’s bad Cockney accent, sounding like Dublin by way of Mumbai. (I believe that authorities have standing orders to detain Dick Van Dyke on British soil.) Is that out of the way? Good. Jeremy Irons’ American accent is atrocious. Anyone who saw the silky star in the 2009 Broadway flop Impressionism already knows that a credible Yank accent is beyond his powers. Now he has three and a half hours to remind us of the fact as the miserly and rueful patriarch James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork Long Day’s Journey into Night.
It might seem unsporting to harp on this technical detail, but the leading man’s shaky accent (which would veer into his own posh lilt) keeps pulling you out of the world of the play. It contributes to an overall tonal incoherence in this production, staged a bit too broadly by Richard Eyre and encased in a distractingly expressionist set by Rob Howell. While the members of the tortured Tyrone clan – which includes morphine-addicted mother Mary (Lesley Manville), tubercular poet son Edmund (Matthew Beard) and amoral playboy Jamie (Rory Keenan) – are separated by addiction, guilt and recrimination, the play doesn’t work if the ensemble members seem to be in different plays.
The young actors playing the sons (both drunks, like their old man) have passable accents, but their characterizations are callow, superficial. Beard’s Edmund is wispy and infantile, and Keenan pushes Jamie’s showbiz mannerisms (he followed his thespian father on the stage) too far. For his part, Irons delivers a Tyrone whom you can believe was once a swoon-worthy matinee idol, and has aged into a weak-willed, emotionally inconstant man. In some ways, Irons shows the essential frailty and vanity of Tyrone more clearly than any production I’ve seen before. At the same time, Irons’ brisk, petulant line readings – chiding his drugged-out wife or casually insulting his good-for-nothing sons – generate laughs in the audience that the author probably didn’t intend. At such times, Long’s Day Journey almost resembles a period sitcom, with members of a dysfunctional family sniping amusingly at each other.
The one unambiguous triumph is Manville. Vocally and physically electrifying, she presents a Mary trapped in a girlishness that ill-suits her hellish present. Wracked with guilt from the death of an infant, consumed with disgust and shame for the peripatetic life she led with Tyrone on the road, Mary is a woman in full retreat from the world, stealing upstairs to inject poison in her veins, rhapsodizing about the fog that engulfs their seaside Connecticut home. Manville flutters and coos like a turtledove but knows how to let the mask drop to reveal shocking depths of rage and pain. She glows, even at her darkest.
Howell’s set is a sort of vertiginous solarium, window-filled walls listing at sozzled angles. It works well enough on its own terms but doesn’t really jibe with the fine-grained realism that O’Neill’s script requires. To be sure, as time marches on and these great plays recede further into our collective cultural memory, it will be necessary to keep reinventing them in terms of casting (like Denzel Washington in Broadway’s recent Iceman Cometh) or bold design choices. In lieu of deconstruction, however, I do prefer my Long Day’s Journey more convincingly American (see the Roundabout’s excellent 2016 revival). O’Neill should be provoked, not left to brood and maunder – like his embittered, unhappy families.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.