“A Moon for the Misbegotten” evokes 1920s rural poverty

O‘Neill depicts smart woman trapped by gender and class
By Lucy Komisar

Eugene O‘Neill‘s play of the 1920s is a sharp political commentary about class, poverty and gender. That overlays what director Howard Davies projects as a story of personal relationships, a male-female pas de deux, with an interfering father thrown in. The individual performances are powerful, even though they don‘t always connect.

It is 1923. The 30-ish Josie Hogan (an assertive, moving, dignified Eve Best) is helping her self-involved father Paul (played by Colm Meaney with a sense of true male entitlement) scrape survival out of a hard scrabble Connecticut farm. Her brother has just taken off for better parts.

Josie and Paul see their “way out” as Jim Tyrone (Kevin Spacey), a rich, alcoholic, third-rate actor whose inheritance makes him the Hogans‘ landlord. But the cards are really held by T. Stedman Harder (Billy Carter), the owner of a neighboring estate, who is defined by his pretentious first initial and his position as an executive with Standard Oil.

Davies doesn‘t concentrate on the politics. In fact, his take is rather cartoonish. That begins with the Hogans‘ home, designer Bob Crowley‘s dilapidated unpainted wood shack, which seems more out of Appalachia than Connecticut. Billy Carter‘s Steadman in jodhpurs, riding boots, and bowler hat belongs to a sitcom, not a man who represents evil corporate power.

The Hogans‘ Irish accents — as opposed to Tyrone‘s good English — set them apart by class. But the political story is lost in Davies‘ directions, so take the personal story instead.

Phil Hogan, squinty-eyed and blustery, is a self-centered man who cares more about his comfort and his booze than about either of his children. When he proclaims, “This is a great day for the poor and oppressed. I‘ll do no more work,” it is the exultation of a lazy drunk.

Josie is the dutiful daughter whose personal life is barren, though she half-brags audaciously about how she carries on with men: “I‘ve a right to be free.” Somehow you never real believe she is as promiscuous as she claims.

Jim Tyrone is the weak alcoholic rich guy, rich through no fault of his own, who perhaps for want of something better to do visits Josie. If there is supposed to be romantic interest on his side, it is not detected in Spacey‘s performance. He seems to be lost in an alcoholic haze even before he gets drunk. Maybe he just wants a friend or a shoulder.

Can Josie catch him? According to her father‘s plan? For herself? Josie is a smart woman trapped between two largely useless men.

Best, Spacey and Meaney are consummate actors. The only problem arises when you try to put their performances together. The story line sets us up for tragedy. Josie is tough but self-abnegating, na¯ve, sad and vulnerable. Tyrone knows enough to feel guilty but is in many ways a twit. (Is that the inevitable female tragedy?) Spacey plays him with studied irony. The fact of Josie plying Tyrone with booze when her goal is to get him to seduce her is bizarre. Isn‘t it supposed to happen the other way around?

Nevertheless, these actors are so good that it‘s a delight to watch them deliver their lines. Even if none of it feels real. So, it‘s a period piece. It‘s a period gem.

“A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Written by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Howard Davies. Starring Eve Best, Kevin Spacey, Colm Meaney, Billy Carter, Eugene O’Hare. Set by Bob Crowley.

Old Vic Theatre Company at Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Tue – Sat 7pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Through June 10, 2007. Running time: 3 hrs. $82.50 – $102.50; Students: $26.50. 212-307-4100.

Photos 1, 3, 4 by Simon Annand; photo 2 by Lorenzo Agius.

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