A Moon For the Misbegotten
It only takes a moment. But with one hop-kick and a spread of jazz hands, Kevin Spacey performs a single dance step that enhances and defines his character so distinctly that the impression of that moment remains for the rest of the show. When telling the story of his mother’s death and the lack of emotion he felt when viewing her body, Spacey describes and demonstrates the need to put on a performance for those watching him to compensate for his lack of tears. The dance step that follows reveals the depths of his characters self-loathing and the self-destructive decisions that follow.
This combination that Spacey achieves is one of the two distinctively remarkable achievements that take place during the current revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play A Moon For the Misbegotten. The other is the entire performance by Eve Best, playing Spacey’s love interest and idol from afar, Josie Hogan.
Josie is a tomboyish, promiscuous woman, the daughter of Phil. They are Irish immigrants and live on a small pig farm, near a wealthy oil profiteer named T. Stedman Harder (played with a prim propriety by Billy Carter). All of Josie’s brothers, including the youngest, Mike (played by Eugene O’Hare), have run away from home, leaving her to care for her father. She is secretly in love with Jim Tyrone, her landlord, and dreams of marrying him and escaping from poverty and her father. Brilliantly played by Colm Meany, Phil is a ne’er do well who drinks too much and works too little. So is Jim.
They are a motley crew, and they are joined together when plotting schemes and jokes against other people. It is when their plotting and scheming is used against each other that the drama intensifies. None of them are happy with their lives, and they long for escape, which is a significant theme within the play, symbolized by the frequent train whistles that blow in the distance. Despite their desire for change, the only method used by these characters is drinking.
Josie and Phil worry that Jim will sell their farm to a higher-paying customer and they consider ways to entice or blackmail him into letting them stay there. The opportunity arises when Jim comes to the farm for a moonlit date with Josie. What ensues is an intense hour-long scene in which Jim is stripped of all of his fine airs and dashing bravado and reveals his darkest and most shameful secrets to Josie. It is exhausting, but also exhilarating to watch. The two perform a dance of dialogue, struggling to honestly express their feelings while maintaining the façade necessary to deceive the other. “I love you, in my own fashion,” Jim says to Josie, while she struggles to maintain her integrity while learning of his lack thereof.
This integrity – or lack of it – is a defining aspect of these characters, and what is remarkable about these performances is how intensely human and sympathetic these characters are. Despite their plots, schemes and ulterior motives, the audience becomes and remains invested in them. They are not necessarily the good guys or the heroes, but their outcomes are important.
Ashamed by his dishonorable past Jim puts forth a desperate struggle to remain virtuous with Josie, telling her, “I’ve had too many mornings. I want to night to be different.” Spacey speaks his drunken stream of consciousness ramblings in rapid-fire fashion, a technique which at times is harmful, causing the words to be lost or overlooked. At times the darker aspects of a speech or line is misplaced as Spacey performs it with a comedic punch. But the depths of Jim’s self-loathing are bared to the core as he begs for forgiveness.
Josie gives Jim that absolution, and much more, with Best performing a heartbreaking role of strength and compassion. She struggles to help the man that she loves as well as achieve the plot that she and her father concocted. She and Spacey keep pace the entire show, balancing each other’s performances and maintaining an authentic feel to an incredible emotional investment. The rapport between the two throughout the play is a extraordinary achievement. The two share a bond that enables them to give so much to each other onstage, making these sad, extraordinarily flawed characters real and endearing.
This is the second play that the character of Jim Tyrone appears in, after being left in limbo in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Inspired by O’Neill’s older brother James, Jim is granted forgiveness, if not happiness, in this story, as he approaches the end of his self-destructive existence. The moment when, after admitting the most shameful moments of his life, Jim buries his head in Josie’s arms and sobs, is one of the most honest moments to take place onstage this theatre season.
“I want tonight to be different,” Jim says to Josie. “It might be different with you,” she replies. And for the audience, it is.