Mourning Becomes Electra @ Acorn Theatre, New York

cast list
Carolyn Baeumler, Mark Blum, Geoffrey Bryant, Joseph Cross, Susan Goodwillie, Mycah Hogan, Robert Hogan, Jena Malone, Patrick Mapel, Sean Meehan, Anson Mount, Phoebe Strole, Lili Taylor, John Wojda

directed by
Scott Elliott
I’m currently mourning the hours I spent watching the New Group’s production of O’Neill’s trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row.

How can I adequately explain the miserable experience of watching the plays’ miserable characters brought to life by actors who seem to be having an equally miserable time on-stage?

A trilogy of plays (Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted) based on Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Mourning, one of O’Neill’s mid-career dramas, contains its fair share of needless exposition.

It’s a difficult play to stage first and foremost because of the grandiose tendencies of its writing, which veers toward speechifying over emotional substance.
Much of the play’s dialogue is painfully on-the-line, the characters indicating their wants and needs explicitly. In short, there’s too much telling and too little showing.

The plays are set at the Mannon family estate in New England in 1865 and 1866 and chronicle the return of General Ezra Mannon, along with his son Orin, to his wife Christine and his daughter Lavinia (or “Vinnie”), eventually telling the story of the family’s descent into ruin.

What Aeschylus’s Oresteia chronicled was the shifting forms of justice of its time. The remaining threads of those themes that run through the ambitiously misguided Mourning have been worn thin, tinged with higgledy-piggledy Freudian notions without the proper subtext as a ballast. In the end, O’Neill’s three plays have a static, didactic feel that never quite transmits across the footlights with anything resembling real sparks.

Director Scott Elliott has assembled a top-notch cast and creative team for this venture, but somewhere along the line they all seemed to have crossed signals. The acting choices are wildly misjudged and overemotional, the drapes-and-picture-frames set by Derek McLane is far too plain, Elliott’s direction is frantic and choppy, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes are occasionally ill-fitting. The list of deficits could fill a phone book; there’s nothing really about this production to recommend this play to anyone but the most faithful and ardent O’Neill enthusiast, who might relish the chance merely to see O’Neill’s words enacted on-stage.

While Lili Taylor is dreadfully miscast as matriarch Christine, there’s a glimmer of potential in the performance of the radiant young Jena Malone as Vinnie, dominating the third act and managing to bring the play to a somewhat more satisfying conclusion than has been hinted at by what came before.

Still, there’s no saving this night out at the theatre, despite the talented hands involved. How many actors, directors, and designers does it take to screw in a lightbulb – or to make a satisfying stage production? Obviously a few more than were on hand here. This one, despite its pedigree, is in every facet, a dud.

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