Theatre Review: A Moon for the Misbegotten

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Kim Martin-Cotten and Andrew May (@Jacob J. Goldberg)
How It’s (Tri-State)  New York:  This production is from the Pearl Theatre Company, one of New York’s Off-Broadway greats, with its own company.  And Eugene O’Neill lived in Connecticut.
How It’s Irish: Oh so many ways.  O’Neill was Irish-American, and his Irishness comes through so clearly here:  it’s all there, the land anxiety; jokes about the church; longing for mother; sex as sin; love as redemption; drink as life and death at once- and the inability to excape the past.
And the Hogans in A Moon for the Misbegotten are overtly Irish, with Irish accents even.
A Moon for the Misbegotten begins as a drinking song and ends as a melancholy ballad.
Through April 15 Only:
A Moon for the Misbegotten, presented by the Pearl Theatre Company at City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th St. bet. 6th and 7th Avenue. Tickets at 212-581-1212 or www.NyCityCenter.org.

A version of this review first appeared in Irish Examiner USA.

For two acts, Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, especially in this production by the Pearl Theatre, which runs through April 15, is a rollicking peasant comedy like one of Synge’s – albeit set in Connecticut.

A father and daughter with strong Irish accents banter and tease and make fun of the English; a bet is made about tricking a landlord into marriage.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you know where the play is going.
You’d be wrong.

The final two acts (there are four; two intermissions in the Pearl’s production) are where the play leaps into Modernism and becomes something else entirely.

Yes, there is love (as the title seems to promise), but it’s not the love you expect: she stands in for the mother whose death he still mourns, while he cries. You’ve left the play-as-drinking-song behind and gone right into play-as-sentimental-ballad or even play-as-slow-air. 

(@Jacob J. Goldberg)

Moon wasn’t a huge success when it was first produced regionally in 1947, or on Broadway in 1957.
It’s still not the easiest play to experience.There were snickers at odd moments in the final two acts, and it is hard to adjust from the speed and zip (director J.R. Sullivan really mines the play for its Irish humor) to the solemn love scene.The play is over three hours long. Still it’s powerful stuff.

It’s got every Irish element in it – not just the the accents and the look of the characters (O’Neill describes Josie Hogan as having “a map of Ireland on her face”), land anxiety; jokes about the church (“they spent so much time confessing their sins they never had time to do any sinning”), longing for mother, sex as sin, love as redemption, drink as life and death at once, and the inability to escape the past.

“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” says James Tyrone, Jr.
Then he stops himself and says “Nuts! Enough with that crap.”  His wry self-awareness makes him lovable. But he’s not wrong.

The Tyrones are the family O’Neill portrayed in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, who were also based on his own family. Older brother Jim was based on O’Neill’s own older brother, who died of alcohol poisoning.O’Neill’s 1947 play, set in 1923, was his last.

James Tyrone, Jr. (Andrew May) is an actor and generally absentee landlord who drinks in the local pub with Phil Hogan (Dan Daily), a bruiser and bully (who we quickly suss out is not really either one). Phil’s daugher Josie (Kim Martin-Cotton), a fabulous, strong giantess, boasts of her sexual conquests and takes no lip from anyone.

In the first scene we see her help a pious younger brother Mike (Sean McNall) escape work on the farm, then threaten her own dad with a club. She’s a redhead with a temper; after knocking her brother down she protests “it was only a love tap.”

It’s fun to realize that Dad, though not in on it, is really delighted to be rid of the bible-quoting youngster, and adores his tough auld daughter. He’s not fooled by her bluster, and knows she’s secretly sweet on the landlord, a Broadway waster who’s secretly sweet on her, too.

Kim Martin-Cotton and Dan Daily (Jacob J. Goldberg)

The Hogans’ wealthy neighbor, T. Stedman Harder (Kern McFadden), is an English snob, which leads to a delightful comic scene where the Hogans tease him mercilessly.
When he complains about Hogan tearing a whole in the fence by his ice pond for his pigs, Phil complains right back that Harder’s luring his pigs to the pond. There’s even a little jig.

But there’s economic tension lurking as the Hogans, who are tenant farmers renting for 20 years, fear that the temptation to sell the land to Harder will be too great.
This is the only thing that could cause Josie to agree to tricking James into a shotgun marriage.
Nothing is quite what it seems.
Josie’s decadence, we learn, is a pose – but Jim’s decline is all too real.

Then there is the poetry.

In a quietly exalted monologue, Josie tells the shattered Jim,

“It isn’t drunken laughter in a speakeasy you want at all, but the sound of yourself crying your heart’s repentance against her breast.” 

And the lyric observations, tinged with despair and faith, are at the heart of the play.
Kim Martin-Cotton takes Josie at a pitch of fun; she’s loud, raucous and at the same time, shy-of her true self. She’s a big girl, a little too pretty for the role, maybe, plausibly insecure.
Her vitality’s palpable.

Dan Daily as her father fills each moment with organic warmth. He’s impossible, irritating, delightful.
You’d buy him a pint just to hear him talk. As Jim Tyrone, Jr., Kevin May exudes a disheveled, lost little boy air. He’s not as handsome as a Gabriel Byrne or Kevin Spacey (both of whom have done the role), but you can see his appeal to Josie.  May holds nothing back from Jim’s pretentions.
He’s not a doomed man with “a touch of the poet” but a man who’s poisoned himself literally and figuratively, and his awareness of his ridiculousness makes him lovable.

McNall makes little brother Mike almost too appealing.
McFadden’s Harder is an absurd prig. At times the energy dips a little low, perhaps.

A Moon for the Misbegotten, as its title suggests, is a romance of people without hope.
The moon can’t last, but its stark beauty has had an impact. 

A Moon for the Misbegotten, presented by the Pearl Theatre Company, runs through April 15 at City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th St. bet. 6th and 7th Avenue. Tickets at 212-581-1212 or www.NyCityCenter.org.

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