Jena Malone (left) and Lili Taylor
First, the good news. Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra returns to New York after a long hiatus. Anyone who is an O’Neill enthusiast should make it a point to see this haunting 4-hour work remounted by The New Group. With the exception of a 1973 Broadway production with the divine Colleen Dewhurst as O’Neill’s Christine, this drama has had no major New York production in recent years.
The bad news is that the current production is lukewarm, suffering from several miscast actors, especially Lili Taylor in the lead role of Christine. And without a powerhouse in this part, the entire production seems anemic.
Much ink has been spilled over this masterpiece, and for good reason. O’Neill’s 1931 epic drama deftly transplants the themes of Aeschylus’s Oresteia to Civil War-era New England in 1865. The plot is as intricately woven as a military officer’s braided epaulet. And the characters have the weight of Greek tragedy.
We meet the Mannons, a wealthy New England family who have dominated their town for 2 centuries. They have made their fortune in the shipping business, and the town folk still tip their hats to the Mannons as “top dog” in the community.
As the action opens, we hear the strains of the chantey “Shenandoah” sung by the Mannon’s old gardener Seth Beckwith. He is joined by town folk Amos Ames, his wife Louisa, and her cousin Minnie. The four approach the Mannon home, talking about Ezra Mannon. They act much like a chorus for the audience, sketching Ezra’s distinguished life. They point to his years as a West point cadet and soldier, businessman, town judge, mayor, and general in Grant’s army. In many ways, Ezra represents American success circa 1865.
The tone shifts, however, when they catch sight of Ezra’s striking-looking wife Christine and her daughter Lavinia. The women’s sudden presence reminds them of the skeletons rattling in the Mannon closet. And soon enough we discover how an old scandal resurfaces to infect the present.
The scandal in the narrative involves the character Adam Brant (Anson Mount), the captain of the clipper ship “Flying Trades.” Adam has Mannon blood running in his veins. He’s the grown-up illegitimate son of Ezra’s brother, David Mannon, who had impregnated a lowly-servant girl working at the Mannon home over 30 years ago.
We first encounter Adam in his late 30s, arriving in town ostensibly to court Lavinia. But she suspects his real identity, and cunningly exposes him by confronting him with his supposed illegitimate Mannon birth. He blurts out the truth, and his confession fuels her perverse curiosity. She’s soon able to uncover that he’s having an affair with her mother Christine. And with typical malice, she immediately writes her father about her mother’s unfaithfulness, which plants the seeds to the coming tragedies.
This play gains much of its power from the blistering age-old themes of jealousy, lust, greed, incest, and hate. And the drama is so tightly constructed that the moral slippage of any given character seems to shake the very earth upon which the Mannon homestead rests.
Unfortunately, the acting is second-rate in this production. Lili Taylor, playing Christine, has evidently memorized all her lines, but seems to be delivering them by sheer rote. Instead of showing us a beautiful woman in the grips of hysteria, she presents a cardboard character frantically moving about the stage, delivering her lines at a fast unintelligible speed. Equally disappointing is Jena Malone, playing Lavinia, who gives us a one-note performance. Granted, she gets the right strident tone, but she doesn’t fully register as the emotional tyrant. And Phoebe Strole, playing Hazel Niles, is totally nondescript as the sister of Captain Peter Niles (Patrick Maple) and Orin’s love interest.
Other parts of the production grate as well. O’Neill wrote a detailed physical description of both Christine and Lavinia in the play’s text, that Christine and Lavinia should resemble each other closely, and have similarly long wavy hair. Yet Taylor and Malone couldn’t look more different in appearance. And in the scenes when characters refer to the beautiful long hair of Lavinia, it doesn’t reflect what we see. Lavinia’s hair is cropped extremely short, which hardly fits O’Neill’s intentions.
Pat Metheny’s original music embellished the story with jazzy textures, made the evening less a bore. Derek McLane’s set, with the portraits of Mannons past and present lining the walls, seems somewhat overdone. The only time this pseudo-portrait gallery works is when pictures of the living Mannon relatives are juxtaposed to the dead, to emphasize some pivotal turn in the plot. But a little pruning of the pictorial family tree might better define the set.
The only real star of this production is the author. O’Neill’s modern reworking of the Oresteia myth is profoundly moving, and altogether eerie. The poetic intensity of his brooding language and his capacity to adapt classical themes to American settings is uncanny. In superimposing the Oresteia drama on his Civil War-era trilogy, he gives us a lasting specimen of American drama.
Acorn Theatre on Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are $61.25. For more information, visit http://www.thenewgroup.org or phone 212-279-4200 or http://www.ticketcentral.com .
Editor’s note: the show will close March 1st