Friday, February 20, 2009

Mourning Becomes Electra


By Eugene O'Neill, Directed by Scott Elliott. At the New Group at Theatre Row. (CLOSED)

And another one bites the dust. Or is it the big one? The big debate amongst reviewers of Mourning Becomes Electra is which parts of the production they blame for its downfall. Is it Lili Taylor's performance or Jena Malone's? Is it the set or is the venue? Is it the text itself? There is a consensus, however, that most of the blame can be laid at director Scott Elliott's feet for a poorly-conceptualized, incoherently staged and rushed production. The one exception so far is the Associated Press' Jennifer Farrar, who found the show "compelling" and disturbing. The photo caption for Time Out's review really must be seen to be believed.

(Jennifer Farrar) This bleak tragedy, originally more than six hours long, has been condensed into four compelling hours of drama by Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group, in this production at off-Broadway's Acorn Theatre...O'Neill's view of his fellow Americans was neither sanguine nor compassionate when he wrote this play, and Elliott's production is faithful to the non-cathartic original. When the Yankee Electra marches to her doom with chin held high, the greatest emotion for the audience is relief that this clan has come to its end.

CurtainUp C-
(Elyse Sommer) This is a rare opportunity to see this rarely done play by one of the last century's great American playwrights. Therefore, despite being disappointed that my over four hour time investment wasn't as rewarding as I'd hoped, I'm glad I went. Like me, you may leave the theater and order the movie DVD from Netflix But if you want to experience this play live, do what our politicians do all the time. Take what you can get. Mourning Becomes Electra isn't likely to pass this way again any time soon.

Theatremania C-
(Andy Propst) While theatergoers owe a debt of gratitude to The New Group and director Scott Elliott for simply putting on this ambitious production, audiences' appreciation for the endeavor will be sorely undermined by its decidedly uneven delivery, not to mention its four-plus-hour running time...Elliott's work initially appears as if it will be decidedly bold. In the production's opening moments, exposition between the Mannon's long-time servant Seth (played amusingly by Robert Hogan) and several acquaintances is delivered as a sort of call and response sequence. It's an ingenious way of transforming naturalistic dialogue into something more resembling Greek drama. But as the play progress, so does Elliott's unsure approach to the material, echoed in Jason Lyons' frequently murky lighting design.

Backstage D+
(Leonard Jacobs) While audiences do laugh during O'Neill plays -- the last Broadway revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night offered surprising mirth -- they do so at Mourning because this tempestuous vessel feels at sea. If you asked me for Elliott's insight into O'Neill's masterwork, I couldn't answer your question. Even with a 250-minute running time (the lobby sign says four hours and 30 minutes), the revival has a manic quality, with actors often racing at subtlety's expense. This is a jolt in Taylor's case, as her Christine is a fascinating portrait in schizophrenia. The original 1931 production ran five hours, but shorter in this case doesn't guarantee satisfaction...The play is hobbled with problems Elliott doesn't address[.]

TalkinBroadway D
(Matthew Murray) There’s simply too much here to be effectively rendered in such thin, approximate strokes. A play of this length and stature demands a treatment that realizes, respects, and perhaps even fears the power of its sprawling script. But just as Malone resembles a stick figure finger-painted on a distant three-dimensional backdrop, so does most everything else about this Mourning Becomes Electra exist on a different plane from the play itself. The words and emotions are unquestionably American, but too many of the people involved make it seem like it’s all Greek to them.

Hartford Courant D
(Malcolm Johnson) The New Group revival casts Lili Taylor as Christine Mannon, the Clytemnestra figure in O'Neill's reworking of the Oresteia. This was one of the main attractions. Yet Taylor falls short in the role, drawing laughs in serious moments, especially in one sexual scene, awkwardly staged by Scott Elliott, the company's artistic director. Elliott has also permitted, or encouraged, Taylor to read her lines at a rat-a-tat pace, so that the play sometimes seems like a screwball comedy. Taylor has taken it on herself to speed up the pacing of the show, which was running 4 1/2 hours in early previews

Time Out NY D
This cast, however, is not up to the challenge of even Elliott’s intimate borderline-camp approach, which has zero gravitas or resonance. Lili Taylor, as desperate adulteress Christine Mannon, rushes through her lines almost tonelessly. Jena Malone cuts a striking, boyish figure as vengeful Lavinia, but her piping voice grows wearying. Worst of all is Joseph Cross’s puppyish brother Orin, whose suicide is a mercy killing.

NY Daily News D
(Joe Dziemianowicz) It's never a good sign when the deepest, most dramatic moments of a tragedy elicit laughter from an audience. But there they were, steady little gusts of giggles arriving like uninvited party guests, during the uneven, sometimes absurdly acted, Mourning Becomes Electra...much of the 4¼-hour presentation has the psychological depth of a Civil War Melrose Place... To be fair, the plot is soap operatic, but the acting needs nuance, and that is largely lacking. Taylor is surprisingly one-note as the scheming Christine, whose actions score the lion's share of unwanted chortles.

NYTheatre D-
(David Gordon) Jena Malone and Joseph Cross, as Lavinia and Orin, the characters based on Electra and Orestes, fare better [than Lili Taylor]. Their performances are well-rounded and arced. The downside is that they, along with most of the other cast members, deliver lines with a distinct modern vocal inflection...The blame must squarely be placed on the director. The lack of a concept, the uneven performances, the strange design all point to a person who didn't have an appropriate feel for the text. It wasn't even the length that was bothersome; it was the fact that the inappropriate staging completely changed the intentions of the play for the worse.

Lighting and Sound America F+
(David Barbour) Here, the director, Scott Elliott, has gambled that he can strip away anything that smacks of the 19th century, when the play is set, or the 1930s, when it was written -- and that the author's words, rendered plainly and flatly, will carry the day. It's a calamitous decision; modernist that he was, O'Neill was nevertheless deeply influenced by the melodramas of another era -- the kind of plays that drove his father's acting career -- and he worked out his dramatic effects to the last detail. Style and meaning are not divorceable in this case; a Mourning Becomes Electra stripped of the grand manner is, sadly, nothing at all... What there is to like about this production is entirely on the design side.

Variety F
(David Rooney) It might be incongruous in 1865, but Jena Malone's haircut in "Mourning Becomes Electra" is super-cute. Love the Jean Seberg pixie crop on her, and the bed-head look is adorably offset by those severe, belted black monastic outfits. Oh, and Jason Lyons' sepulchral lighting is just the right funereal cloak for designer Derek McLane's minimalist mausoleum aesthetic. Those are the chief points of interest and the most visible signs that some -- any -- thought went into this inert revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1931 "Oresteia" update, a production so static and misdirected you start glancing around half-expecting the audience to mutiny...In a play that should churn, simmer and swell over three parts and more than four hours, there's no driving momentum here and, aside from the risibly overwrought sexual tussles, too little physicality. The scope and ferocity of O'Neill's monumental epic are overshadowed by its repetitiveness (enough with that island metaphor) and simplistic psychology, its primal obsessions dulled down into amateurish histrionics.

NYPost F
(Frank Scheck) Some of the veteran supporting players, such as Mark Blum and Robert Hogan (as the gardener) acquit themselves nicely. And famed guitarist Pat Metheny has contributed some effectively atmospheric background music. But in terms of nearly everything else, from the dreary production design - the small painting of the Mannon estate that is displayed before the action begins is all too indicative of the general reductionism - to the tension-free staging and god-awful performances by even the members of the chorus, this is a production to inspire mourning, indeed.

The New York Times F
(Charles Isherwood) Four hours of quicksand from which you begin to fear you will never, ever escape. Attending this professional production in the country’s theatrical capital, you might be forgiven for imagining you were in a stuffy high school gym in an anonymous suburb, hostage to the delusional ambitions of an overweening drama teacher who really needs to go back on his medications.

AP B 10; CU C- 6; TM C- 6; BS D+ 5; TB D 4; TONY D 4; HC D 4; NYDN D 4; NYTH D- 3; LSA F+ 2; VAR F 1; NYP F 1; NYT F 1; TOTAL = 51/12 = 4.25 (D)

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