Eugene O’Neill, whose insanely detailed stage directions for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” specify even the titles of the books on the shelves, somehow forgot to mention the Purell. Also the N95s.
Yet there they are, prominent props in Robert O’Hara’s warp-speed Covid-era revival, which opened on Tuesday at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. Far from cheapening a classic work with random relevance, they help define (or at any rate don’t get in the way of) a beautifully acted and affecting interpretation for a new age of disease and lockdown.
In the Tyrone family, closely based on O’Neill’s, disease and lockdown are already a way of life. For James (Bill Camp) the disease is spiritual; a could-have-been Shakespearean who (like the playwright’s father) got trapped in an immensely popular melodrama, he is embittered by success and a skinflint by nature. His older son, Jamie (Jason Bowen), has just the opposite problem: A failure at everything, he beggars himself by carousing as if he weren’t.
For the other two members of the household, the disease is literal. Partway through the play, the younger son, Edmund (Ato Blankson-Wood), receives a diagnosis of tuberculosis from which he believes he will never recover. His mother, Mary (Elizabeth Marvel), having been improperly treated by a cheap doctor after Edmund’s difficult birth, is addicted to morphine. Her most recent rehabilitation miserably collapses over the course of the long day of the title.
That day, according to O’Neill, is in August 1912; the setting is the family’s fog-infested waterfront home on the Connecticut coast. There, James estivates sourly between tours, talking big and doing little, watching helplessly (or unwilling to help) as Mary’s fear for Edmund undoes her.
Her relapse is all the more painful because of the hypocrisy that informs it; it began, after all, as a result of James’s stinginess. And though the three men drink at least as insatiably as Mary drugs, only her addiction is seen as a character flaw: an elective humiliation that has turned them all into emotional — and nearly literal — hermits.
In O’Hara’s production, though, the Tyrone lockdown is only partly about shame; it is also about precaution. When Mary tells James that “this will soon be over,” and that his theater season — another tour of his tired old play — “will open again,” we hear it differently with our pandemic-primed expectations. How many productions have recently had to reassure us they will open again?
And all it takes to turn Edmund’s tuberculosis into Covid is the discreet suppression of the word “consumption” from Jamie’s question after his brother visits the doctor: “He thinks it’s … doesn’t he, Papa?” We fill in the blank as we please; the coughing is the same either way.
That’s successful if relatively minor surgery. But can a revision that cuts about half the text, reducing its running time from nearly four hours to slightly less than two, still be “Long Day’s Journey”? Certainly the O’Neill estate, which permitted the changes, thinks so, in part because O’Hara, as he writes in a program note, has not added “a single word” in the process of imagining “this glorious play into the future that we are all currently living through.” The contemporization is achieved entirely by suggestive or visual means.
At first, the effect is humorous, as when James shows up in cargo shorts bearing Starbucks and Mary, demonstrating her improved health, does yoga. Soon, though, the jokes deepen, creating a feeling of double vision as we notice both our time and O’Neill’s at once. The density makes a four-person play feel crowded; Clint Ramos’s living room set, littered with discarded Amazon delivery boxes, nails the relentless clutter of a self-indulgent family trapped together for months with no maid. (She too was cut.)
Nor do the house’s upper stories, as revealed through voids in the living room wall, offer relief from the creeping claustrophobia; in one of the openings we see Mary repeatedly shooting up. (To judge from the spoon and flame, she’s using heroin now instead of morphine.) If this, let alone her vomiting, feels too literal, the astonishing projections by Yee Eun Nam are almost phantasmagoric in their abstraction. They vividly suggest the solace that blossoms from the needle, a solace that is at least in part a dissociation from reality.
Yet we know that anyway; the play as typically performed demonstrates it over and over. Mary’s addiction is part of a closed system in which each of the Tyrones victimizes and is victimized by the rest, all the while explaining and apologizing and defending. (That’s part of what justifies its usual unusual length.) What O’Hara gets so right, regardless of the apparent setting, is the relentless rhythm of placation and perturbation. These are people who can’t help pulling one another’s scabs off, then trying to stick them back on.
If you want to think about our own recent lockdown in those terms, this production, even in its relative brevity, certainly allows you to. And if you want to think about what O’Hara meant by casting white actors as the Tyrone parents and Black actors as the sons — he says he meant nothing — you are welcome to do that too, though you probably won’t get very far beyond merit.
But if you aren’t interested in a contemporary medical or racial gloss, the great thing about this “Long Day’s Journey” is that you need only close your eyes. Indeed, because the revival has been produced by Audible, the Amazon company that creates spoken audio content, once the stage production closes on Feb. 20 that will be the only way you can experience it.
What I think you will find with the visual information stripped away is a very accomplished, and surprisingly faithful, reading of the play. If it loses some of its cumulative power in the abridgment, its moment-by-moment power often increases in recompense. Bowen and Blankson-Wood get the alternating current of the brothers’ connection just right. Camp, unlike many Jameses, plays the real man, not his melodramatic stage incarnation. These are performances that are not only stageworthy but streamworthy.
And certainly Marvel’s vocal characterization of the deteriorating Mary — lilting then wheedling then ratlike then hollow — is one you will not soon get out of your head. You may even feel infected by it. Do they make Purell for the ears?
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Through Feb. 20 at the Minetta Lane Theater, Manhattan; audible.com/ep/minettalane. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.