There are two plays currently onstage in Dallas – one’s a great American classic, the other’s a recent, caustic, off-Broadway hit. They were written more than 70 years apart, but Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks talks to Justin Martin about how ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ at the Undermain and ‘I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard’ at Kitchen Dog are stunningly similar. They’re both merciless, comic dramas about ‘life upon the wicked stage.’
JUSTIN: These two theater companies, Undermain and Kitchen Dog, didn’t plan on these plays as a pair. But you say the echoes between them are remarkable. So what are we talking about here?
We’re talking about dysfunctional theater families in each play, parents and children, savaging each other for personal and professional failings. Most people are probably familiar with ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ from high school or college — they’re probably not familiar at all with it from North Texas stage productions, though. The Undermain’s is the first since the Dallas Theater Center’s in 1998. Before that, the Theater Center hadn’t presented it since 1964.
‘Long Day,’ of course, is Eugene O’Neill’s devastating portrait of his family. O’Neill’s own father, like the father in the play, was a popular stage star. Bruce DuBose plays James Tyrone in the Undermain production, and he uses his voice as a rich but weary, matinee-idol baritone, particularly when Tyrone unburdens himself late in the play about what would trigger the family’s many sorrows: He cashed in on a piece of theatrical junk, touring for years in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’
“I’d lost the great talent I had through easy repetition,’ Tyrone says, “never learning a new part, never really working hard. Thirty-five to forty thousand dollars net profit a season like snapping your fingers!”
James sold his talent because his own childhood of near-starvation left him terrified of poverty. So when his wife Mary had a painful delivery, he found a cheap doctor to save a few bucks, and Mary got hooked on morphine. When the play begins some 20 years later, Mary seems in good health from a recent stint in rehab. But James and his adult sons watch in horror and anger as she falls back into addiction — again. They promptly start drinking and bellowing their blame at each other.
And there’s nearly three hours of this?
Yeah. That’s O’Neill’s reputation — he wrote big, slogging, emotional brawls – with people unable to escape each other or their own pasts. It’s true. O’Neill is neither an elegant nor a particularly efficient stage writer. This has lead artists and critics from Arthur Miller to Mary McCarthy to dismiss him as crude and repetitive.
But I think theater scholar Ethan Mordden put it best. O’Neill spent his life writing and re-writing the same family tragedy, and with ‘Long Day’s Journey,’ he finally got it right. O’Neill wasn’t stupid; over his long career, he’d been a commercial Broadway playwright. He knew full well that nearly three hours like this would wear down most audiences.
So – he sent in the clowns?
Comic relief, yeah. Only in the last couple decades have directors discovered the humor here — as in director Jonathan Miller’s 1987 version with Jack Lemmon as James Tyrone. It re-calibrated the Tyrones as a quarrelsome, bad-mannered, comic stage family. O’Neill himself was Irish-American, yet he was perfectly willing to pull out old gags about drunken Irishmen, the gift of blarney, their skinflint shrewdness. I admit, the humor here is usually bitter. But the night I saw the Undermain production, people were definitely laughing.
A typical example: Edmund, the younger son, has tuberculosis, and he learns his cheapskate father has been considering saving some money by sending him to a charity clinic. So he confronts James on the point. Dad breaks down tearfully. You can go to any clinic, he cries, anyplace you want! Pause — within reason.
That got a laugh. By this point in the play, the only hope the Tyrones have is that Edmund might actually be cured. It’s clear, spiritually, no one else will be saved. Only Edmund has a shot at — well, perhaps not happiness but at least a less anguished existence. Yet even at this moment, his father has this comic, reflexive spasm of stinginess.
Simply put, O’Neill’s characters cannot help themselves – and that’s the essence of both comedy and tragedy. Director Katherine Owens plays with that point where the one turns into the other — and the results pay off in the last act, O’Neill’s supreme achievement. This is where the boozy truth-telling of father and sons turns vicious and silly. They try to play cards while nearly blind-drunk, they bicker and yell even as they frantically shush each other. They’re terrified of waking the opiated ghost that Mary has become. She’s the heart-wrenching embodiment of all their failures as a family.
There are good reasons the Undermain production has been selling out night after night. The cast, for one thing, is exceptional. Mordden has argued a chief reason ‘Long Day’s Journey’ is considered the Great American Drama is that O’Neill created Big Roles in it. Here was the American theater, at last, adding thrilling characters to the ranks of Cyrano, Prospero and Mother Courage.
First among these is Mary Tyrone. At the Undermain, Joanna Schellenberg offers a steelier Mary than usual, her hands like claws, twisted in pain and anger. She makes Mary truly driven; both a strong-willed woman and a terrified addict, frightening in her rages and pleas. Schellenberg’s stuttering leaps between the two can be electrifying.
But in her last soliloquy, when the morphine has drifted Mary back to adolescence, Schellenberg doesn’t deliver the dreamy wistfulness the speech needs. Mary is not seeing the world any longer; she’s lost in her memories. Mary has achieved the kind of psychological obliteration that Jamie can only long for during his drunken binges. Instead, Schellenberg speeds through the lines (although after nearly three hours, who wouldn’t?).
Yet it’s Mary’s final words that sum up O’Neill’s lifelong, Schopenhauer-like conviction that life’s a fraud. Happiness is just an escape from the painful reality of existence. Escape from such pain may be welcome, but ultimately it’s a flimsy illusion, a ‘pipe dream.’ And even as an escape, it fails us. It’s too brief, it’s useless, it just gives us a memory of a past that was supposedly better.
In recent seasons, Bruce DuBose has brought a welcome touch of comic hamminess to such characters as Goldberg, the lead gangster in ‘The Birthday Party.’ They were preparation for his Tyrone, whose self-conscious actory-ness is a crutch and a target. O’Neill used his own theater family in ‘Long Day’s Journey’ to explore the notions of disguise and role and phoniness. They’re his substitutes for Freudian analysis. Seeing through people’s masks and their proper posturings to what is sordid and real underneath (the morphine addiction behind a mother’s love, the stinginess powering a father’s morality) — that’s how these characters torment themselves. The two sons’ disgust for their parents are predicated on their own supposed clear-eyed honesty, their unwillingness to be fooled anymore. But to the old actor’s affectations DuBose also brings if not a pained grandeur than a touching recognition of his own failings, which is perhaps the closest thing O’Neill holds up as an unassailable human value: being honest with one’s self.
As the younger son, Edmund, Josh Blann is thoroughly appealing and earnest, but a little robust and rosy-cheeked as a maritime wanderer and TB victim. Even with his nagging cough, we’re not really worried for Blann’s future. On the other hand, Shelby Davenport vigorously conveys Jamie’s despair and jeering humor. Some actors manage this only as a smart-ass pose; Davenport’s Jamie’s cynicism is bone-deep. He’s completely convincing when Jamie, in trying to put Edmund ‘wise to the world,’ warns his brother, dammit, he’ll drag him down, too. Again, in O’Neill’s works, there’s actually something bracing in such savage, personal honesty. No wonder Jamie seeks to numb himself. We cannot abide too much of reality, perhaps especially when it comes to ourselves.
When it comes to production design, Owens brought in the Undermain’s A Team. This is a handsome, brooding production — thanks in part to Giva Taylor’s lace finery for Schellenberg and the linen period outfits for the men.
And there’s John Arnone’s set and Steve Woods’ lighting. Arnone has reproduced the sun-bleached, wicker chairs and the dark, unpainted wood paneling that actually lines the walls of Monte Cristo Cottage, the O’Neill family home in Connecticut. Much of the set is in gloom because James Tyrone — like Dickens’ Scrooge — knows darkness is cheap. The gloom permits Woods a lovely, wraithlike effect: In the back hall, we see characters silhouetted in the shadows as they walk away from the others, their steps stirring up fog.
[Which brings up one production quibble: son Jamie works up a deep thirst cutting the garden hedge in the first act but there’s not a drop of sweat on his face nor his clothes. Similarly, both Jamie and Edmund walk for hours through the night fog of an ocean-front town, a fog that has Edmund getting out his seaman’s pea jacket. But while Jamie returns slightly mussed from his whorehouse carousing, both men are bone-dry. Walking in a fog is walking through a cold mist. At least their hair would be wet.]
So how does the Kitchen Dog comedy fit here?
It’s not just the coincidence of these two productions being staged simultaneously that pairs them. The links begin even before the beginning. Halley Feiffer, the author of ‘I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard’ at Kitchen Dog, started working on her script while she was at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut — which happens to own Monte Cristo Cottage, where ‘Long Day’s Journey’ is set.
I’m not saying Feiffer was directly inspired by O’Neill, only that ‘Pray for You So Hard’ feels like ‘Long Day’s Journey’ trash-compacted into 90 minutes with just a father and a daughter drinking and cursing each other. The father is a dissolute but acclaimed, old-school playwright, and he’s laying out the harsh facts of theater life to his adult daughter, who’s debuted in an off-Broadway revival of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull.’
The theater, he tells her between swigs, is plagued by hateful, envious critics. It’s plagued by casting directors blind to real talent, plagued by second-rate dramatists like Arthur Miller, by cowardly gays and sexy, non-threatening actresses who succeed over ones who aren’t so conventional-looking, so complaisant around the casting couch. Ultimately, dad may be reciting these indictments as a way of preparing his daughter for some bad news. But it’s also plain that, one, Dad has never forgotten or forgiven anyone anything. And two, he’s a petty, manipulative bastard.
As in O’Neill’s play, memory is a millstone here, something that can’t be escaped but also something that gets used as a comic weapon, dragging everyone down. Just like in ‘Long Day,’ people say they’re trying to help while they’re actually sticking the knife in deeper. Dad wants to give his daughter advice, boost her spirits; at the same time, he’s belittling her, mocking her, letting her know full well she’ll never measure up, really. And like ‘Long Day,’ the two characters fuel their talk with joyless, relentless drinking, drug abuse, vicious rants. I can’t quote from them, frankly, because dad’s hilarious but he’s also profane and homophobic and sexist.
And just as in ‘Long Day,’ there are great roles for actors here. ‘Pray for You’ is a bracingly corrosive comedy, one that demands a large degree of fearlessness from performers: the ability and courage to be repellent onstage, to be revealingly vicious and emotionally sealed-off. Barry Nash has mostly appeared in smaller, character-actor roles. Here, he’s been given the chance to deliver an epic performance, an hour-long symphony of petty revenge and self-pity — and Jenny Ledel is not far behind as the daughter. Lee Trull has never directed better; the show is tight and unsparing.
And like ‘Long Day’s Journey,’ ‘Pray for You’ is at least somewhat autobiographical. Playwright Halley Fieffer is a child of the theater. Her father is the cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer.
You mean the guy who wrote ‘Carnal Knowledge.’
Right. Recall the scalding sexual humor in that film. That’s how his daughter writes.
People get hung up on the autobiographical elements in both plays — partly because we still think of autobiography as somehow validating fiction. But we also see these plays as Oedipal, the playwright taking revenge against the father.
Yet in terms of the theater, these plays actually offer revenge on the father’s style of drama. Both plays hold up the old man’s ideas of theater as essentially out of date and even dishonest. And both plays offer a form of drama more current, more honest — a form, the playwrights believe, that cuts more deeply.
In ‘Long Day’s Journey,’ the hoary idol being upheld is Tyrone’s god, Shakespeare. Old man Tyrone constantly quotes taglines from the plays, extolling Shakespeare’s writing as the best expression of any sentiment, any situation. The early 20th century was a time when Bardolatry truly ruled America and American theater. It was like the grand piano in the parlor: Quoting Shakespeare was a sign of culture and class, especially for a hungry Irish immigrant kid who used theater to save himself from the factory. By implication, O’Neill’s own play one-ups Tyrone. Here, O’Neill says, did Shakespeare ever achieve anything this raw? Maybe only in ‘King Lear’ do Shakespeare’s families get as wretched, as lost as this.
‘Pray for You’ does the same. The stage setting switches from Upper West Side to an off-Broadway theater in the near-future, where the daughter’s own ‘meta-theatrical’ performance about her father has been produced. Needless to say, the daughter has learned her lessons about memory and the past and not forgiving anything. This whole battle-of-theater-styles is one reason both plays have a ‘take-no-prisoners’ quality. They’re not just about exacting retribution for old family wounds from childhood; they’re about surmounting the father’s faith, crushing not just him but his art. He was wrong, we will accept not a speck of wisdom from him.
Still, the two plays are more than 70 years apart. There’s gotta be something different — other than the acid humor and the whole father-daughter thing. What distinguishes their images of life in the theater?
In ‘Long Day’s Journey,’ fame is never an issue, never really a concern. Not even James Tyrone mentions it as a particular desire — he talks about art and talent and money, never celebrity. What drives and tortures all the Tyrones, instead, is an image of the wholesome, loving family they never were. Mary berates her husband repeatedly, they never had a home, not a proper one. They lived in hotels.
Mary excuses James, though, and her sons because they never had the benefit of a good upbringing. In other words, they never knew what a family was supposed to be. Yet they all torture themselves with that ideal — with what amounts to a fantasy, a possibility that was ruined practically in utero by Edmund’s painful birth.
It’s revealing, then, that in ‘Pray for You So Hard,’ no such idea of a loving family is ever mentioned. It’s never even bothered with. In our day, it seems, no one cares about family much. No one accuses anyone else of being a bad father, mother or daughter, no matter how dreadfully they behave toward each other. Father and daughter even enjoy one moment of spiteful agreement when they jeer and mock Mom – the offstage, unseen mother. She’s not a failed ideal. She’s just a loser, she’s irrelevant to their shared need.
And that need is celebrity acclaim. That’s what’s pursued so avidly in ‘Pray for You So Hard.’ As the father jokes, one of the benefits of being famous is living forever. It’s that precious. And it’s why he considers his daughter a failure: She’s not sufficiently ruthless, pretty or talented enough to succeed in this business. And it’s clear to both of them that success on stage, success in life, is measured by fame. Nothing else matters.
In short, acclaim — praise — is what father and daughter have instead of love. It’s what they withhold from each other, taunt each other with. It’s all we strive for now, the be-all and end-all of theatrical art.
But finally, what unites both of these plays is how, in rejecting the father and his art, the family anguish is just extended forward another generation. The sins of the father are inherited by the children. The children are, in their ways, just as sad and vindictive, just as wounded. You know what, though?
Clearly, the kids also inherited some of the father’s talent as well.
Justin, it’s a pleasure.