Theater Review: 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'

When man lived in caves and carried clubs, the only form of theater around was the family drama--the spectacle of watching your relatives self-destruct or survive. Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," currently in revival at London's Lyric Theatre through March 3, taps into his own family's primitive struggles with drugs, drink, faded ambition and with one another. Jessica Lange and the Charles Dance play the Tyrones, the centerpiece of O'Neill's semi-autobiographical play of "old sorrow, written in tears and blood."

It's a fearsome vehicle for two-time Oscar winner Lange to tackle. All year long, London's boards have groaned under the weight of imported Hollywood talent. Daryl Hannah brought back "The Seven Year Itch," Macauley Culkin played a young American seduced by his French teacher in "Madame Melville," and Kathleen Turner titillated by parading buck naked as Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate." But the critics' raptures have been reserved for Ms. Lange. "Do we need another Hollywood star treading the London stage?" asked The Daily Telegraph. The paper's answer: "If all the imports are as good as Lange, then let's stuff Shaftesbury Avenue with Tinseltown's finest."

The Tyrones are a family locked in love, hate and their own tragic history. She's a morphine addict; he's a fading stage legend with a drinking problem and pathological miserliness. Their two twentysomething sons, Jamie and Edmund, are embittered and stunted by their father's tyranny and their mother's addiction. Set in a New England vacation house on a single summer day in 1912, the play chronicles a descent into despair, as the Tyrones pick away at their scabs, from the cause of Mary's dope addiction (a quack doctor's prescription for the pain of bearing Edmund) to the dangers of Edmund's consumption. It isn't pretty, no matter how starry the cast.

But ugly emotions make for gorgeous art. As Mary Tyrone, Jessica Lange doesn't initially seem like the emotional sniper she reveals herself to be. Her voice is lacy-light, and even at 50, she's still got the downy-chick beauty that won her the Fay Wray role in the 1976 "King Kong" remake. But looks can be deceiving. Not for nothing did Jack Nicholson once compare Lange to a cross between a fawn and a Buick. Her Mary Tyrone is nervous and coltish. She worries her lace handkerchief and pats her Gibson Girl wig. She flirts with her husband and flutters around Edmund, "the baby." But her fussy gentility is a mere distraction from what she really wants: a fix.

Mary might be played as an overgrown convent girl with a drug problem. Lange has the guts to make her nasty--a clinging woman with a killer emotional backhand. "You mustn't be offended," she says sweetly, after lashing out at her husband for his cheapness, his drinking or the loss of their child. Yeah, right. "I never knew what rheumatism was until after you were born," she ruefully sighs to Edmund, by way of letting him know that he's to blame for her addiction.

As Dance plays it, James Tyrone is still powerfully attracted to his wife. At one point, he grabs her and caresses her chest, as though she were a memory of her former self. Dance himself is pretty muted, playing Tyrone less like a fading ham than like an aging literature professor. As Jamie and Edmund, the excellent Paul Rudd and Paul Nicholls rage around the delicate set, slamming doors and running out to drink and whore. In the play's wrenching final scenes, they end in a Cain-and-Abel clinch.

Throughout, all four actors engage in the oldest form of theater: watching one another. The boys watch Mary to make sure she's not shooting up. Mary and Jamie watch Edmund to make sure his consumption isn't killing him. The boys watch their father, waiting for some new sneer about their laziness.

Simon Higlett's set, with its see-through screens and huge proscenium arch, suggests the Tyrone home as a stage for ghosts. "The past is the present, isn't it?" Mary asks. "It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won't let us." Mary Tyrone, as played by Jessica Lange, is a liar, but she manages to tell the truth beautifully.

Theater Review: 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' | News