Back to the grind after a day off. If you can call that a day off. Woke to what felt like a hangover. Haven’t had a drink for a few years, but the feeling is a familiar one from days of yore. I’ve been working on this play too long.
The stage door of the Walter Kerr Theatre is an awkward affair. The door opens off the street into an incredibly cramped cubicle, about 4 feet square, where a stage-door guard sits on a swivel chair occupying the entire space. He watches a small television to take his mind off his hellish employment and, with eyes still glued to the television, swivels the few available inches to accommodate your squeezing by him and into the stage area proper. It’s an absurd but somehow fitting entryway into the damned up world of Eugene O’Neill.
This is the final preview week. You can hardly even call it a preview week since the critics start coming halfway through it. Opening night is Sunday, but the critics come midweek so that they can write their ever-so-thoughtful reviews over a space of time. So I really sort of have to keep my hands off the production now. The actors need to play it freely, minds uncluttered with last-minute notes. And I have to be careful not to have any more ideas. I’ve learned that the hard way. Years ago, I was doing a hostage drama and I decided at the last minute that the man playing the hostage didn’t look enough like a low-level bureaucrat, so I insisted he wear a moustache. A moustache was hastily constructed. Opening night, a few minutes into the first act, the right side of his moustache became unglued. Now, if you’re quick, and the glue is still wet, you can press your hand against it and it will reseal itself. The problem was, the man was playing a hostage and he was handcuffed with both arms behind a chair. Excruciating minutes went by. The moustache began to flap a little whenever he talked. The actor playing the terrorist saw the problem and thought, “Sorry, I’m a terrorist, why would I fix his moustache?” An understandable demurral for a man about to blow up Washington, D.C., but ruinous to this particular opening night. Late in the act, the terrorist undoes the man’s handcuffs so that he can eat. The actor immediately reached up and ripped off his own moustache to a chorus of sniggering from the audience.
So I don’t have ideas close to openings anymore. Then what am I doing there, sitting like a useless lump in the audience, too worn out to act the cheerleader as I probably should be doing now? Good question. Oh let’s face it, I’ve never played the cheerleader in my life. An actress I recently worked with called me “Sunshine” with a devastatingly cruel inflection every time I appeared backstage. At this point, actors want what they usually refer to as “feedback.” Feedback is not notes or suggestions or ideas. Feedback is, as I’ve come to understand the term, immoderate and unqualified praise. “Honey, that was inspired.” “My God, it’s perfect.” And, you know, after all the struggle, they damn well deserve it and need it. And I do my best but I can see the little glint of suspicion as they listen to my half-baked performance. “Thanks, Sunshine.” It’s not that I don’t need it. I just feel I’m auditioning for the role of enthusiast and I’m wrong for it.
Notes were getting harder to give on this play anyway. Hard to orchestrate the deterioration of an alcoholic. Emotionally wearing. Most of the subtextual work is done early in the rehearsal period, the play broken down beat by beat, the huge discoveries as we probe beneath the surface of the play. And the play is all subtext. Characters hiding from one another and themselves. As we move toward opening night, the detail work becomes more and more important. Exactly how much alcohol should the character of James Tyrone consume. “Don’t take so much there. Drink a little more there.” I began to get very depressed after these note sessions and I came to realize that it had something to do with my late father’s alcoholism. Among the children, I was the designated caretaker, and I would watch his intake with a chemist’s precision. Every night at the Walter Kerr, I seemed to be living it again, trying to control the flow.
In the end, the play itself offers some relief. O’Neill was obsessed with the masks people wear to hide from the world and themselves. In most of his plays, the masks hide a grim reality. Long Day’s Journey Into Night begins with a family seemingly contented on its surface before it quickly and terrifyingly unravels to show the miserly, haunted, addicted people beneath. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, the face beneath the mask is love. The hardness these people affect is a protection for the fragile, needful affection they have for one another.
This is O’Neill’s last play, his last word on the subject, and it’s interesting that he came to hate it. I think maybe it’s because he couldn’t accept its goodness, its conclusion that we can ever “rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”