Off-Off-Broadway review: ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’ and ‘Beyond the Horizon’
America’s first great playwright, and possibly its best, Eugene O’Neill had a tragic life that was mirrored in his deeply moving and often pessimistic work and a fantastically successful career that included four Pulitzer Prizes and the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. New Yorkers have the chance to see two of his plays right now that effectively bookend his prodigious output, the early “Beyond the Horizon” (for which he earned his first Pulitzer in 1920) and “A Moon for the Misbegotten” (the last work performed during his lifetime). Set among Irish-Americans in the rural Connecticut of his childhood, both plays use autobiographical details to paint portraits of desperate dreamers crushed by circumstances beyond their control and their own fateful decisions.
A painful, haunting work, “Beyond the Horizon” starts as an adventure story of young love and life on the high seas and ends as a nightmare of domestic recrimination and thwarted dreams. Robert and Andrew are caring brothers living on their father’s farm and in love with the same woman, their beautiful neighbor Ruth. Robert is a poetic stargazer about to embark on a voyage around the world as an apprentice on his uncle’s ship, whereas Andrew is a pragmatic everyman set to take over the family farm. Ruth makes her romantic choice on the eve of Robert’s departure, setting off a series of events that tear apart the happy family and result in individual misfortune for each character. The illusion of love soon gives way to hardship and regret for those that stay, while the one who leaves finds himself wishing he had remained. Like the Jacobean dramatist John Webster as described by T.S. Eliot, the play reveals that even at this point in his career O’Neill “was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin.”
Robert’s youthful interest in fairies and other childhood wonders ill equips him for a life of toil and practical business, and the sickly boy with literary aspirations is soon broken by a sisyphean cycle of drudging labor and bad luck. He is one of the living ghosts that occupy so much space in O’Neill’s work and life, half-dead men and women who move through life like shadows in a dream, whose visions never materialize, whose revolutions never come. Aside from Uncle Dick bearing an uncanny resemblance in appearance and performance to Cap’n Crunch, the characters perform with suitable understatement and simplicity under Ciarán O’Reilly’s forthright direction. This play was the moment American theater finally came into its own, and from the elusiveness of Andrew’s self-made wealth in Argentina to Uncle Ben’s jungle riches in “Death of a Salesman,” our playwrights continue to ponder its ambivalent examination of the American Dream’s deadly promises.
A sequel to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” for which he won his final Pulitzer, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” concerns the Hogans, a family of tenant farmers, and their bittersweet relationship with their endearing yet self-loathing landowner James Tyrone. An alcoholic theater dilettante and disgusted womanizer, Jim was based on O’Neill’s older brother, who died of alcoholism at the age of 45 within three years of their parents. The play starts with Mike, the youngest of Phil Hogan’s three sons, taking his father’s accumulated fortune of $6 and running away from the farm with the help of his only sister Josie. Despite Phil’s constant blasphemy and endless bickering with his daughter Josie, we soon realize that the two are actually a fairly happy pair with a deep and abiding love for one another. With her bruised knees and amazonian health, Josie would have people believe that she’s a fallen women who has been with every eligible man in the county, a lie to cover her insecurity and loneliness that secretly pains Phil, though he halfheartedly plays along, and irritates Jim, who tells her to cut it out because of his genuine admiration for the father and daughter.
A kind of surrogate son to Phil, Jim enters reciting Latin and is an immensely likable, affable, and gentle person when sober. But when he drinks his mind often wanders through dark memories and secret sorrows, culminating in a confession to Josie on a long moonlit night about his revulsion with the circumstances of his mother’s death and his contemptible reaction to it. Having wallowed too long in a shallow, ugly world at least partly of his own making, Jim can no longer abide the corruption around him and the decay within. He is near the end of his days, by choice and circumstance, O’Neill capturing his disgust as lucidly as a mirror. Often quoting Ernest Dowson’s masterfully decadent poem “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae,” Jim too is “desolate and sick of an old passion,” prey to the grief of his insurmountable personal losses that falls upon him “when the feast is finished and the lamps expire.”
O’Neill was greatly influenced by the themes and staging of Ancient Greek Tragedy, his characters existing behind masks emotional and psychological in abstract spaces that easily lend themselves to experimental productions. Director J.R. Sullivan errs in relying too heavily on a realistic set and especially in overdoing the naturalistic sound design, with its superfluous singing of birds and cicadas, reminding one of the rural silence Chekhov wrote into his plays to stymie Stanislavski’s equally overzealous naturalism. Otherwise, the cast and crew does an admirable job of realizing O’Neill’s stark yet exhilarating story of one man’s losing battle with his past and the silent demons of his soul.