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 until 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, 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.
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 mindbogglingly dull thirteenth-century courtroom drama. Veteran actors Richard B. Watson, Steve Wise, and Jacob Witkin are also ill-used.
But wait, you ask, just what is a disputation anyway? During the Dark Ages, when Church-sponsored anti-Semitism flourished in Europe, public trials were held in which Jewish scholars were forced to defend their religion. When they failed to satisfy the Church authorities, entire communities of Jews were, as the program notes put it, "forcibly baptized." (Read: threatened with death if they didn't convert.) King James I of Aragon was said to have described a disputation in Barcelona -- in which one Rabbi Moses ben Nachman successfully persuaded his audience that Judaism was valid -- with the comment: "Never have I heard so unjust a cause so skillfully argued."
Let me add that in the twentieth-century dramatic re-creation, rarely have I seen such inherently fascinating subject matter turned into a sleeping potion. This month, which includes Holocaust Remembrance Day and the ongoing terrorization of ethnic Albanians in Europe, a drama that looks at religious persecution ought to be particularly perspicacious. Even without that real-life backdrop, the notion of having the rabbi (played by Bikel) go up against Pablo Christiani (Watson), a charismatic Dominican monk who was born a Jew and converted, is thrilling. How does Maccoby, a Jewish-studies scholar with no playwrighting experience, turn the stuff of gold into lead?
It suffices to say that despite the considerable efforts of this high-caliber cast, not one individual in the story emerges as a full-fledged character. (Witkin plays the king, whose precarious power base is threatened by his extramarital dalliances; Wise is the Dominican instigator Raymond de Penaforte, who proposes the disputation partly as a way for King James to regain credibility in the eyes of the Church.) In place of individuals with human quirks and contradictions, each person who appears onstage in The Disputation is merely a mouthpiece for a particular idea or social custom. Even when they're populated with good characters, courtroom dramas are often little more than a contrived way to air ideas. Here the play's sympathies are clearly with the rabbi (not that I'm complaining), which means there's really no debate going on at all.
If Maccoby's intent was to recount and catalogue the nefarious seeds of anti-Semitism, he should have either stuck to the scholarship that is his forte or hired a dramatic collaborator. Director Bob Kalfin's heavy-handed approach to staging nearly matches the plodding tone of the script. In place of subtlety he gives us cymbal crashes and broad-stroke flourishes. An account of the human price paid by those whose lives were affected by disputations and their consequences is sorely missing.
Written by Hyam Maccoby. Directed by Robert Kalfin. With Theodore Bikel, Jacob Witkin, Richard B. Watson, Steve Wise, Barbara Sloan, Louis Silvers, Denise Sanchez, Irene Adjan, and Elan Zafir. Through April 18. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-442-4000.
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.