Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Review: Mourning Becomes Electra

For Back Stage.

Here's the review:

In director Scott Elliott's revival of Eugene O'Neill's comedy Mourning Becomes Electra—wait a minute. This isn't a comedy. It's a tragedy, a trilogy, 13 acts in all, about a family violently disintegrating after the Civil War, a conscious, monumental remaking of Aeschylus' Oresteia with American values, faces, and voices. Why did the audience laugh?

First, forgetting the Aeschylus-O'Neill parallels, audiences know soap operas when they see them, and Mourning Becomes Electra is that if nothing else. Indeed, unless the performance I saw was dense with Ancient Greek theatre scholars, the audience intuited that Christine Mannon (the curious Lili Taylor) is an updated Clytemnestra, the radicalized wife of Agamemnon, who here is called Ezra Mannon (Mark Blum, in finest fettle). Christine doesn't love Ezra, so in his wartime absence she took up with Captain Adam Brant (the charming if miscast Anson Mount), the illegitimate Mannon cousin blamed for a family curse.

With the blue and gray armies ceasing fire, Ezra returns home to Christine in Boston. There, daughter Lavinia (Jena Malone, in a scorching performance) openly hates her mother but loves her father—an Electra complex that reflects O'Neill's desire to place psychoanalysis under the elms of his drama. Also homeward bound is brother Orin (a too callow Joseph Cross), who adores Christine and vice versa. He's the Orestes—the Oedipal complex—of the play.

Second, while audiences do laugh during O'Neill plays—the last Broadway revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night offered surprising mirth—they do so at Mourning because this tempestuous vessel feels at sea. If you asked me for Elliott's insight into O'Neill's masterwork, I couldn't answer your question. Even with a 250-minute running time (the lobby sign says four hours and 30 minutes), the revival has a manic quality, with actors often racing at subtlety's expense. This is a jolt in Taylor's case, as her Christine is a fascinating portrait in schizophrenia. The original 1931 production ran five hours, but shorter in this case doesn't guarantee satisfaction.

As in the Oresteia plays after Agamemnon—The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides—horrors ensue. Lavinia, aware of Christine's affair with Brant and maybe jealous of it, tries blackmailing her mother; Christine tempts fate by slaying Ezra. Using skullduggery, Lavinia persuades the disbelieving Orin of his mother's evil, and soon he slays his mother and Adam. Now alone, Lavinia and Orin might wed two local siblings, Peter (Patrick Mapel) and Hazel (Phoebe Strole), but the Mannon curse devolves onto them. Of Mourning's three plays—Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted—it's the later acts of the latter two that offer pain, fresh as a paper cut, as Orin and Lavinia vie for revenge, dominance, and a final exorcism of Mannon demons.

The play is hobbled with problems Elliott doesn't address, such as the aged gardener Seth (a kindly Robert Hogan) and his endless intoning of an old sea shanty and the Greek chorus–like declamations of faceless townsfolk. Derek McLane's set, recalling a Greek skene as O'Neill imagined; Susan Hilferty's trim period costumes; and Jason Lyons' macabre lighting do unmoor Mourning from its scholarly roots. But it needs a director consistent in his use of space, as we never glimpse the interior of the Mannon manse. Unfortunately, Elliott repeatedly violates his own conventions. It's part of a pattern of nonguidance over which we may laugh or mourn.

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