Broadway review

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ gets a COVID makeover—and stays spellbinding

The Daily Beast

January 25, 2022

A new production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has been cut to 1 hour and 50 minutes, and is set in the COVID-present day. All the play’s raw pain remains.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s play about the relentless descent of the Tyrone family in the duration of just one day, is never not tense. There’s Mary (Elizabeth Marvel), getting off her head on morphine or modern-day opioids upstairs, away from her husband James (Bill Camp, Marvel’s own husband), and two sons Edmund (Ato Blankson-Wood) and James Jr./Jamie (Jason Bowen).

For the men, there is booze, oh my goodness, endless booze—with bottles of Scotch getting opened and decanted and glugged with the fluent speed that Popeye used to imbibe cans of spinach. No good can come from such substance and alcohol abuse, and soon we are into the territory of words being said and dark emotions being shared that can never be taken back.

But you always get the feeling with the Tyrones that while it may seem apocalyptic to us—rather like Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—this is just what the Tyrones do. As even the worst insults are hurled, the most horrible and painful sentiments spewed, the quartet of actors also impart that the Tyrones have all been here before. The expressions on their faces are jaded, worn out, over it. Their wounds have been opened and closed over and opened again and they will close over once more. This may well seem like a long day’s journey into night for us. For the Tyrones it’s family business as usual. They’ll just get up tomorrow and do the same thing over again.

There are other things that ratchet up this Audible Theater production at the Minetta Lane Theatre (through February 20). The size and feel of the Minetta Lane is small but mighty. The audience is utterly focused and concentrated on the slaloming mini-tragedy happening in front of us. Director Robert O’Hara—Tony-nominated for Slave Play—has also situated the action in an age of COVID, with the family coming in and out wearing masks, and with hand sanitizer liberally squirted on palms. Amazon boxes, with their sly upturned smile logos so perversely out of place in chez Tyrone, litter Clint Ramos’ spare-looking stage.

There are no words added to reflect this modern setting, but the cooped-up family feels extra cooped-up thanks to lockdown. The gorgeous maritime setting is constantly invoked but feels millions of miles away as the household’s collective emotional strangulation intensifies.

Edmund’s grave respiratory illness remains. It is presumed to be tuberculosis, but COVID adds a neat hovering menace to the repeated (by his drugged-up mother) mentions of his impending likely death. The play has also been cut and trimmed, and O’Hara also makes effective use of Yee Eun Nam’s projections, which when Mary is high are Gothic cartoon blow-ups of her bedroom wallpaper. At other times swirling patterns take shape. They are not pretty or whimsical; they feel like waves of nightmares and domestic nausea.

Rarely does an audience feel as trapped as the folks on stage, but O’Hara and his group of actors manage to keep us claustrophobically captive. For O’Neill purists, the two significant changes—the cutting of text, and the wearing of masks in a present-day setting­—do not feel egregious. Given the size of the theater and the intimate proximity of all the pain in front of us, it may feel too close to elements of lived experience over the last couple of years for some watching.

Marvel excels as Mary, her repetitious, fluttery concern for Edmund’s wellbeing true, but also a cover for her own grief at the loss of an earlier child—whose death she squarely and bitterly places on Jamie. When she disappears upstairs to inject morphine we watch her do so through an open window, slumped forward on a chair. Everyone knows. It is not a secret—neither her drug-taking nor her grief. She thinks it is, and everyone indulges her tragic pantomime and futile subterfuge. Everyone indulges that she is a mother, that she heads a household. They know she needs this. They live, day in day out, with the reality of the lie.

The Tyrone household is one where not only Mary is managed—Marvel plays her beautifully as trapped between present day and past, empathy and pain, warmth and viciousness—but where James and the boys are similarly contained in the boxes ascribed to them.

Mary recites over and again—a pathetic, wrenching, broken-record Ophelia—how the life of a nun was almost hers until she fell under James’ spell. At these moments she sounds like a curdled Cinderella, her eyes lit up and also dimmed, her spirit remembering a life of promise, but also crushed. Marvel’s performance is so good it is as unbearable to behold as O’Neill intended. You are as frustrated as her husband and sons when she repeats her scattered soliloquies.

The men are Mary’s eggshell-treading satellites. James, an actor, mainlines whisky, and tries to maintain a gruff paternalism and bonhomie, but his drinking is as much a manifestation of helplessness as Mary’s morphine injections. “Stop drinking,” you think as yet another bottle is opened, another glass filled. Camp shows us adeptly how close to an edge James is, and how, while he has done all he can to protect Mary (in his eyes), his indulgence of her, his unthinking selfishness as an actor and a man, his own inability to grieve and confront the disabling depth of his wife’s misery, has led to the implosion of his family around him—and to his own abuse of his wife, even though he would be horrified to hear that.

Bowen plays Jamie as a sober lad-about-town, and then, when he returns—pickled, obviously—from one night out on the town, we see his own guilt, and his knowledge of his own shortcomings. He begs Edmund to stay away from him so he doesn’t destroy him. O’Neill based Edmund, and the dynamics of the family, on himself and his own experiences. The play was first performed three years after his death in 1956.

Blankson-Wood beautifully plays Edmund as the evening’s watchful anchor. He is closest to us in the audience, watching on, mesmerized and horrified, as a familiar family collapse happens around him. He knows all that is projected on to him—the dangerously ill, vulnerable one. He knows the death of another sibling has preceded this. He knows his mother, father, and brother’s frailties, and so, wracked by a foreboding cough, he sits swathed in blankets as the storm rages. He knows more of the same is to come.

The irony, of course, is that the forcefully coddled Edmund is the strong one. The cost of survival in this family is the doomful shadow that lingers as the lights finally come down—and you, utterly enveloped in this raw and excellent production, finally exhale.