Seen on Broadway: A gripping central performance keeps The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted by Joan Didion from her 2005 memoir, from being a book-on-tape for the stage. A first-rank film and television performer, Vanessa Redgrave had never previously convinced me as a theater artist; her own production of Antony and Cleopatra, at the Public, was an embarrassment, and in the 2003 revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night she worked hard to make the material suit her, rather than the other way around. Didion’s raw-boned writing, harrowing and beautiful in equal measure, and the one-person staging adroitly directed by David Hare, offer no protection, and as Redgrave, with her weathered eagle’s profile, bears no resemblance to the sparrow-like writer she has to burrow deep into the painful account to dramatize it for us. So she does, splendidly, with her commanding diction and a range of gestures that she is careful not to overuse. (Her hair, coiffed by Naomi Donne, is something of a prop.)
Much of the 90 minutes is the actress seated in a wooden terrace chair, the kind that the author, who won the National Book Award for nonfiction for her account, might have at her Malibu home. Didion relates the death of her husband, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at their Manhattan apartment in 2003. Their daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized, and in a medically induced coma when Dunne died, and the author struggles to make sense of the double tragedy as shards of family history and her oscillating emotions both disrupt and inform the narrative. The show, which is playing at the Booth Theatre, is both an adaptation of Didion’s book, and an epilogue: Quintana, who had seemed to be recovering, died shortly before it was published, and the writer continues the story. At this point, the chair disappears beneath the stage, and Redgrave—who had been shifting in it, suggesting the confinement in a cramped airplane or hospital room without italicizing her body language and breaking character—is left desolate, the sole survivor, to finish the piece, without its homey comfort, or that of the sand-hued, now barren, lighting, to support her. This literal last stand brings the story to a riveting close, as the most poignant of several upstage scrims Bob Crowley has devised is revealed at the climax.
With their hints of sea and sky, Crowley’s scrims, which fall away at turning points, add an ethereal touch to the show, which does not beg sympathy. (Its anti-catharsis is moving in its own right.) Ann Roth’s costume is tailored to match; a plaintive detail is a bracelet, from Quintana, that Didion wears as a kind of talisman. Jean Kalman’s lighting is superbly, subtly attuned to the changing moods—as melancholy as much of the material is, the show is also dryly humorous. Paul Arditti’s sound design quietly evokes waves and other ambient sounds. [Hudson Scenic provided the scenery and automation, I. Weiss the soft goods, and PRG the lighting and audio equipment.] The design is an ideal accompaniment for the lament that is The Year of Magical Thinking.
The 2000 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten featured a surprisingly uncomfortable performance by Cherry Jones, but an absolutely shattering one by Gabriel Byrne, who was born to step into the shoes of the dissipated James Tyrone, Jr., who is on his last legs since the wearing events of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the death of his morphine-addicted mother. In this production, exported from London’s Old Vic to the Brooks Atkinson, the opposite is true. Veteran British actress Eve Best is a delight as the homely, tomboyish Josie, who with her father (boisterously played by Colm Meaney) schemes to hang onto their patch of rock-strewn farmland, in rural Connecticut, which Tyrone might be selling. The rowdy tenant and the fading landowner try to push through their defenses one unguarded night.
But Kevin Spacey (the artistic director of the Old Vic), who played Jamie in a 1986 production of Long Day’s, returns to the part as if the dying Tyrone had somehow morphed into a riverboat gambler. Spacey’s acting career, in full flush with his second Oscar (for American Beauty) and his magnetic turn in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh on Broadway in 1999, has grown stale in the intervening years; clearly he wants to pull out all the stops and remind us what a showman he can be, but this piece is the wrong vehicle for his bag of tricks. A Moon for the Misbegotten did not really cry out for another go-round relatively soon after its last, more memorable appearance, and the gap between the two performers only highlights how uneven the play is.
Overly conscious of its weaknesses, Howard Davies, who directed Iceman, gives the show a hopped-up, amphetamine pace, a mistake, as the material, for as boggy and repetitive as it can sometimes be, needs to thicken to thoroughly envelop your interest. I guess he also takes the fall for one of the stranger designs I’ve seen in some time. Much is made of Tyrone’s departing on the “night train to Broadway,” but that must be a bullet train, as Bob Crowley’s arid, slanted set seems to be located in the Sonoran Desert. You half-expect Josie and her dad to be panning for gold in their cistern. The brilliant blue-sky cyc suggests the Southwest more than the Northeast, a curious notion exacerbated by the coyote howls that play a part in Christopher Shutt’s sound design. Only Lynette Mauro’s costumes fit, though Spacey was again a little too neatly turned out in his linen summer wear. Mark Henderson’s lighting accompanied the passage of time in Act I, then mysteriously froze at dusk as the play entered the deep gloom of the evening in Act II, reviving only at daybreak. (Hudson Scenic built the set, GSD supplied the lights, and Sound Associates the audio.) Thanks to Broadway debutante Best, this Moon for the Misbegotten is not completely misbegotten, but one can one say about a production that lacks a moon?—Robert Cashill