First Nighter: McDonald, Swenson in O'Neill's 'Moon for the Misbegotten', Yasmina Reza's 'The Unexpected Man'

As far as I know, the most chillingly romantic scene in American dramatic literature occurs in the second half of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, a revival of which is now in its final week at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Josie Hogan (Audra McDonald) and James Tyrone Jr. (Will Swenson), after many years of keeping up transparent fronts with each other, at last admit--not without much contrary carrying-on--that not only do they truly love each other but that their disparate defensive behaviors have been just that over the years landlord James and farm girl Josie have pussyfooted around each other. By the end of their triumphant yet ill-fated breakthrough, they are completely defenseless before each other.

Because the extended sequence (where in O'Neill can there be found a sequence that isn't extended?) is so challenging, nothing less than consummate acting is required. Theatergoers who saw Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robard's have at each other in the 1973 Broadway revival are still unable to keep comparing all subsequent players with those two.

Let's say immediately that were McDonald and Swenson to be compared to their 1973 predecessors, which they won't be here, they would come out exceedingly well. During the crucial emotional, not to say histrionic, scene, McDonald and Swenson don't make a false move. (Does their being married have something to do with how in tune they are? It's not for me to speculate.)

O'Neill, writing autobiographically about his failed older brother--as he did in Long Day's Journey Into NIght--is pushing two tormented figures front and center. Swenson and McDonald get it all. The psychological torture to which Josie and James have exposed themselves in different ways is practically palpable. That they become each other's confessor is O'Neill at his most compassionate, and six-time Tony winner McDonald (were the production to reach Broadway, would it be a seventh for her?) and Swenson (a first Tony for him?) push their by now much displayed talents to new reaches.

Actually. Swenson fully conveys the barely veiled self-loathing that James can't repress no matter how copiously he drinks from any bottle handy. (Bonded liquor flows freely here, as does a much-used water pump.) While McDonald is flawless in the second half, her goodtime girl Josie in the earlier scenes lacks the suggestion that her flaunted bravado has become something of a strain to maintain.

For the McDonald-Swenson achievements, director Gordon Edelstein deserves great credit. He's not only maximized the misbegotten pair in their long night's journey into day, he's kept things hopping throughout. He has the bombastic Phil Hogan (Glynn Turman), who's forever taunting daughter Josie while counting on her to make his hardscrabble life comfortable, charge relentlessly around the barren territory he hopes one day to own. (Ming Cho Lee's barren set, dominated by a grey-brown shanty and several large rocks, is very much what O'Neill pictured.)

Making an early impression as Mike, the last of the three Hogan boys to skip out on the cantankerous Phil is Howard W. Overshown. Then there's Aaron Costa Ganis playing T. Stedman Harder, the flamboyant equestrian neighbor who doesn't know what he's letting himself in for when he comes complaining to the Hogans about their meandering pigs.

O'Neill watchers who think Ah, Wilderness is the only time the playwright has been deliberately humorous had better take a closer look at this set piece. Thanks to Edelstein, McDonald, Turman and Ganis, it's unlikely the slice of comedy has ever been better rendered.

Being literal minded is another criticism often lobbed at O'Neill. He often is--and repetitious. Nevertheless, there's plenty of poetry in the moonlit Josie-James duologue as well as more than a couple of undeniable truths. When James talks about trying to fool other people and frequently succeeding, he also comments dejectedly, "We can't fool ourselves." Who's going to disagree with him on that? And who won't see the accuracy of James's observation that we often allow ourselves no present or future because "the past is happening over and over again."

A Moon for the Misbegotten, like much of O'Neill's writing, is hard to hear for its painful understanding of humanity's dark side, but it's also necessary. Edelstein's new take on it once again drives that point home.
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A nice accounting of Yasmina Reza's curious short play The Unexpected Man is taking place at Shakespeare & Company under Seth Gordon's understated directing and in Christopher Hampton's translation from the French.

A man (John Woodson) and a woman (Corinna May) sit opposite each other on a train. He's a famous author, and she happens to be a devoted reader who recognizes him immediately. They don't converse immediately, however. Instead, they speak their thoughts aloud in alternating monologues.

As they do, they reveal themselves to themselves, if not to each other--until perhaps the end of their hour-plus time together. The author is fighting an incipient bitterness--the first word out of his mouth is "bitter." The woman has her own problems to sort through but also wonders whether she should let the author know she recognizes him. It just so happens that she has a copy of his latest novel, called not coincidentally "The Unexpected Man." At first she doesn't pull the book from her bag, and, amusingly, the author initially dismisses her as someone who doesn't even use a journey as a handy time to read.

To keep things moving for two characters who remain seated throughout the piece--although highly animated as May and Woodson play them--Gordon has devised a smart solution. He has the pair on a slowly revolving turntable in the middle of the theater's thrust stage.