Posted by: strugglesome | January 25, 2011

Blue Moon: The Arden Theatre Company’s Moon for the Misbegotten

Edmund Kenn, actor, theater maker and raging alcoholic who dazzled the London stage of the early 19th century with his interpretations of Shakespeare and died in poverty (still want to be in Theater  kids?) and famously exited the earth the parting lines of “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”, and while that’s absolutely true, it should be acknowledged that tragedy is also a challenge, as evidenced by the Arden Theatre Company‘s affecting but often lackluster production of Eugene O’Neill‘s booze soaked pity party, A Moon for the Misbegotten. A prohibition era tale of love, loss and the depths of human frailty, this work is the companion piece to the better known Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the play that first introduced us to the painfully twisted Tyrone family, their genteel poverty, and their extremely self medicated dysfunction.

In this play, however, we have a different kind of family, the working class Irish agrarian clan, the Hogans, who chew through the English language like a Snickers bar and use vicious insults as a form of affection. Brash mannish Josie Hogan (Grace Gonglewski) manages her father (H. Michael Wells) and brother (a solid Sean Lally, who we barely have time to care about before the playwright banishes him to the oblivion beyond the world of the play), but it unable to control her adoration for extremely unstable chronic substance abuser James Tyrone Jr. (Eric Hissom), the one weak tie that connects this play to Long Day’s Journey into Night. A tragic romance wrapped up inside a mortgage melodrama, the play takes place on the Hogan’s farm in Connecticut, though, frankly, Matt Saunder’s artificial looking “worn down farmhouse” set makes  it look more like Kansas in the 30’s than Connecticut in the 20’s, and the accents of most of the cast members have Irish potato famine written all over them; it took a direct expositional mention of the location for me to understand where this was happening geographically and temporally. And that kind of confusion seems to be a theme in this production; there is a real sense of isolation in this work, the set and world of the play seem to exist beyond the confines of reality. There is no sense of the world of the play beyond the stage, characters enter and exit into ether, giving the piece a disconcertingly surreal quality. Thom Weaver’s dreamy lighting design only adds to this effect, as does James Suggs’ minimal sound, so in total there is a sense of the design being in conflict with the script, pulling the piece in one direction while the rest of the production tries to root itself in realism.  The play is staged in the Arcadia Stage at the Arden Theatre, which is the smaller and more intimate of the two venues in the building, but the play feels completely removed from the audience,  played so distantly that it makes it difficult to connect with or be concerned by the story. The strength of Saunder’s set is that is has allowed the actors a good deal of playing space, and yet for some reason, despite director Matt Pfeiffer’s three-sided staging and incorporation of the audience, we feel worlds away from this narrative.

Part of the issue is that we are, unfortunately, distant from O’Neill’s work on many levels. He writes in a style and language that is not immediately comfortable to us, and he describes issues from which we are separated by time and social change. So we are immediately at a disadvantage in this piece because  it lives in a world similar to but not quite like our own. It’s almost easier to enter into a piece that exits in a completely different plane then to watch a show that is close to us, but not quite close enough. Additionally, if you have no knowledge or memory of the beginning of the Tyrone saga, you have a severe handicap, because so much of James’ character is explained by his relationship with his family, none of whom appear in this work.

The plot is fairly simple, the Hogan’s are (extremely degenerate) tenants of the Tyrone’s (though only James remains living) , and Josie is madly in love with James, just as James sees Josie as his salvation. But (spoiler alert) there is no happy ending for our lovebirds, as the two are torn apart by money, land, and, more importantly, the insurmountable barriers of the human soul. As one does. James, (the uninspiring and rather snide Hissom who has the difficult task of spending the entire show playing drunk) hopelessly damaged by the death of his mother, drinks himself to sleep nightly, spends what little money he has, and, in a reference that is made over and over ad nauseam, cavorts with Broadway’s women of negotiable affection, “tiny tarts”, as the fuller-figured Josie sneers. Josie, (a fantastically empathetic and quietly moving Gonglewski) the sole female caregiver of her Irish immigrant family, spends her time bickering with her lovable drunk of a father Phil (Walls, who adds a wryly inebriated comedy and a brusque wistfulness to the play) , and trying to keep the family farm on its feet. Josie also has a reputation for being rather fast  which is all an act to cover her virtuous status as a virgo intacta (not to offend O’Neil, but in 2011 this reads as a hopeless dated plot point). Of course, given that this is an American drama, money naturally has to play a role, because “there’s never a promise between god and man goes North of 10,00 bucks” (adjusting for inflation).  So we are introduced to financially based plot points, that is, the Hogan family are tenants to the Tyrone’s and haven’t paid their rent in years. The mystery of whether or not James has/will sell the land to snobby nouveau rich oil baron T. Stedman Harder (another throwaway role ably performed by Allen Radway) creates a will he wont he narrative that is, frankly, rather boring, and not all that mysterious. Josie, assuming the worst, decides to seduce and shame James, who will be so embarrassed at having succumbed to the charms of such a “great ugly lump” (Gonglewaski is, of course, a very attractive woman. This suspension of disbelief business is difficult) that he will allow them to keep their farm.

In theory this conflict  is the lynchpin of the show, raising the questions of selfishness and self-sacrifice and loyalty, and driving the main portion of the play, that is, a never-ending conversation/confessional/drinking game/cuddle session in which the love of Josie and James crescendos and decrescendos all before the sun rises. In practice, we have a world where the stakes feel very low, the vocabulary is extremely limited (this play consists of literally five conversations all repeated in different ways. And they say Chekhov is single-minded….), and the tragedy is minimal. As it turns out, there is a fairly thin line between the moving and the mundane, and both the production and the play itself seem to vacillate between the two with alarming regularity. The relationship between James and Josie is the most tragic thing about the piece in the way it is completely unfair; James attacks Josie and then blames her for “letting” him, he needs her as mother and virginal ideal, keeping her separate from the women he uses sexually. Well, that’s all well and good for James, but it deprives Josie of any of her wants and needs, and at the end of the play we are right back where we started, with Josie trapped on the farm, taking care of the men around her, unable to save James, unable to save herself. And while I believe the audience is supposed to be left saddened by how nothing really changes in life, and “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again”, all I was left with was the dissatisfaction of not being able to really invest in the story or be truly saddened by its ending, and the need to hand Josie a copy of The Feminine Mystique.

The Arden Theatre Company’s A Moon for the Misbegotten runs now until February 27th. Tickets are available here.

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