It has been hailed as “magnificent” and “mesmerizing.” Kevin Spacey’s performance in the Old Vic production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, I mean. After seeing the Old Vic’s take on The Philadelphia Story last year, in which Spacey, the theater’s artistic director, acted less-than-Cary Grantly opposite Jennifer Ehle, I was skeptical, to say the least. The Spacey age at the Old Vic has proven a troubled one.
I have yet to experience anything “mesmerizing” at the Old Vic, where, aside from Spacey’s turn in A Moon and Philadelphia Story, I also watched Sir Ian McKellen camping it up as Widow Twankey in Aladdin, which struck me, unaccustomed to the Christmas panto tradition, as disenchanting and tawdry. A Moon is well beyond both of those trifles, without quite rising above unevenness. I am not sure, though, whether to attribute my dissatisfaction with it to the script, the production, the performances, or to a perverse streak all my own—which accounts for the mess I made of these oft-revised notes.
To begin with Spacey, whose career I’ve been following since the early 1990s, when I was introduced to him by a mutual friend, backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, where the man who would be Lex Luthor appeared with whatever-happened-to-Academy-Award-winner Mercedes Ruehl in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. No doubt, I have been trying to discover the man in his parts ever since, which does not help matters. Spacey’s off-stage persona has irked me at times, an uneasy, calculated ease that threatens to render his acting as disingenuous as an act. Then again, selecting his roles for stage or screen, he seems most comfortable and convincing in the skin of the con, the trickster, or the sham.
In A Moon, Spacey is Jim Tyrone, a middle-aged, self-confessed “third-rate ham” who lays bare his conscience-tormenting past while under the influence, in a state where men are most likely to drop their masks. Spacey’s Jim is a queer duck, more likely to drop a glass than a hint of hidden truths: there are elements of camp in his gestures and postures, suggesting a self-indulgent act rather than honesty. In his “reflections” on A Moon (published in the playbill), Spacey claims that the challenge of impersonating a drunk is to play him “so he doesn’t become monotonous.” Was it just that, or could playing the lush be an opportunity to go “gay all of a sudden” (to quote Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby) and explain such release as temporary spasms?
A Moon is a play of lost schemes and the schemers who get lost in them, who struggle to redeem themselves by scrapping their act or getting it together. The central character is Josie Hogan, a farmer’s daughter whom O’Neill envisioned as “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak,” a dated, gender-stereotyping description Eve Best could not be expected to fit. Just as Spacey’s Jim may not know as much about loving women as he claims, being that he is more likely to adore or assault than to embrace them, Josie only puts on the act of a wanton to conceal that she is virtuous, a quality she derides as being “worse than decent.”
Despite his flaws, Josie has fallen in love with Jim; or, rather, she loves him for his vulnerability when exposing them. She might have more satisfaction forgoing the company of men altogether, considering that she is being manipulated into becoming a mantrap for Jim in order keep a roof over the pighead of her father (Colm Meaney). While not lacking in willfulness, she is the only one of Hogan’s children to remain on the farm, having assisted in the escape of her younger brother, a “New England Irish Catholic Puritan, Grade B” (played by an altogether miscast Eugene O’Hare, who seemed to have gotten into the first act on a Guy Madison scholarship).
Disregarding O’Neill’s instructions, Bob Crowley, the designer in charge at the Old Vic, places what there is of action in a surrealist set reminiscent of the Dust Bowl conceived by Dali instead of a September day in the Connecticut of the early 1920s. As a symbol of farmer Hogan’s crookedness and his lost dream of a plot, this hovel of a crazy house created in me a sense of dislocation that even the earthy performance of Irish actor Meaney could not counter. And yet, it is a set fit for a play that seems set on estrangement, that sets you up by setting out as comedy but never quite settles there.
There are shades of Ah, Wilderness!, the lightest, least controversial of O’Neil’s works, considered inoffensive enough to be frequently adapted for American radio during his lifetime; but then this Moon, considered unfit for Broadway until long after the playwright’s death in 1953, turns on you and the light-heartedness gives way to some heavy-handed, drawn-out confessionals.
The audience, like the titular satellite, is being compelled to keep circling what amounts to a rehearsal for a funeral during which fears and failings are exposed and confessed, talked about rather than dealt with, let alone resolved. Redemption has rarely felt quite this unredeeming. If the lack of resolution may be considered a triumph of modernism, the orbiting in the sphere of words strikes me as a failure in dramaturgy. The circular and roundabout are not without their returns; but, I’d rather be spinning quietly in a chairoplane (like the one at the fun fair on London’s Leicester Square, pictured above) than sit through what amounts to a cycle of remorse and unfulfilled desires.