Moon Shines On

"It sure was a beautiful night," says Jamie Tyrone, one of the two survivors in American theater's most famous morning-after scene. "I'll never forget it," this drunk says to Josie Hogan, the woman who's given him the only respite from misery he's likely to get in this life. But, as Eugene O'Neill fans know, Jamie won't remember how he came to wake up on the Hogans' front stoop, his head on Josie's lap. He may not ever remember whether or not he made love to Josie. A few more nights like this and he won't even remember her.

Blame the memory lapse on John Barleycorn, Jamie's constant companion. Or blame it on the fact that Josie and Jamie, the world-weary protagonists of A Moon For the Misbegotten, now getting a solid production at the New Theatre, are doomed to find only fleeting comfort, a brand that's as effervescent as it is profound.

This was O'Neill's last play, written in 1943 but not recognized as a masterpiece till Jose Quintero revived it with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards at the Circle in the Square in 1973.

It shows its age in some of its particulars: How many people still recognize the specific trappings of despair in the poverty of the Hogans, Irish-American tenant farmers with old-country brogues and bare feet? And what of poor Jamie Tyrone? The story he tells Josie of his shame at buying a whore to keep him company after his mother's death makes him sound all too human, not depraved as it may have in the 1920s, the decade in which the play is set. And Jamie's idol worship of the virginal Josie will seem, to modern audiences, like something that calls out for psychotherapy rather than sips of bourbon.

Still, as the New Theatre production proves, the play can transcend its musty origins and break our hearts anew. Rafael de Acha's well-appointed set depicting the ramshackle Hogan cottage and yard accentuates the hopeless environs in which the story unfolds, under the steady direction of Roberto Prestigiacomo. Despite their tattered clothes, however, Josie, her brother Mike, who runs off as the play begins, her father Phil, and Jamie all appear a tad too well-kempt for folks who are supposed to be down on their luck. Fortunately the strength of the production overcomes this oversight. Only Bill Hindman's hair, dyed a hideous orange color that does indeed exist in the Irish gene pool but not on the head of a man of Phil Hogan's age, stands out as ridiculous.

But there are no wrong notes in the casting. Through masterful manipulation of her body, Bethany Bohall (who is director Prestigiacomo's wife) fills out the physical attributes of Josie, described by O'Neill as "so oversize for a woman she is almost a freak." There's nothing monstrous about Bohall's performance, though it's as emotionally muscular as Josie's brute physical strength. Her long day's journey into night is the heart of this production. In Bohall, Josie's boldness belies a naivete with men. It's easy to see why Jamie Tyrone could see through her bluster and find a lack of guile that's sexy and endearing at the same time.

As her opposite number, David Kwiat's dark and elegant physical appearance doesn't immediately call to mind Jamie Tyrone (the character is based on O'Neill's brother, also a washed-up actor and drunk). And his entrance, as a cocky youngster in a straw boater, is too dandyish for this character. But Kwiat's performance is so deft and sure of itself that he easily won me over. Not only is he convincing as half of the odd central couple, but he also has great chemistry with Hindman, with whom he must enact a hilarious scene about the Hogans' pigs, which apparently keep wandering into the neighbor's ice pond.

As that irate neighbor T. Steadman Harder, a millionaire heir to the Standard Oil fortune, the talented Heath Kelts doesn't have much to do (the action is all in the Hogans' dialogue). Still, he's drawn up as more of a buffoon than O'Neill intended. Prestigiacomo plays the scene for cheap laughs, when in fact there's more comedy to be had by playing it straight. Indeed there's no need to dress up this scene, not when the playwright has Phil Hogan turn on his accuser with a choice bit of blarney, demanding, "What the hell d'you mean by your contemptible trick of breaking down your fence to entice my poor pigs to take their death in your ice pond?"

If there's no real electricity in this production, New Theatre gives us the second-best thing: a sustained, intelligent, compelling drama by one of the best playwrights we've ever had.

A Moon For the Misbegotten.
Written by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Roberto Prestigiacomo. With Bethany Bohall, David Kwiat, Bill Hindman, Heath Kelts, and Andy Quiroga. Through April 18. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

Actor/recording artist/Newport Folk Festival founder Theodore Bikel is the household name on the marquee at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, where Hyam Maccoby's The Disputation is playing, but he's not the only topnotch talent buried alive in this mind bogglingly dull 13th-century courtroom drama. Veteran actors Richard B. Watson, Steve Wise, and Jacob Witkin are also ill-used.

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