The inexplicable—the moon, for example, or death—is the most difficult thing to portray in the theater, and it’s what all the great playwrights have written about. Most contemporary plays and playwrights don’t ask actors to portray the inexplicable, but Eugene O’Neill demands it, and Gabriel Byrne delivers in an original, eerie, and laconic performance as James Tyrone inA Moon for the Misbegotten. Every now and then there’s an “O’Neill actor”—he wrote about gamblers, hairy apes, emperors, domestic tyrants, and sailors at sea; yet he escaped the machoism of Ernest Hemingway or even Arthur Miller. His writing transcends what it is to be a man or an American, what it is to be human and to experience pain. His men suffer, his women suffer, and no one can help anyone else for longer than a night. What they can do is see and be seen for what they really are—flawed, weak, heartbroken, and spiraling. The actor’s job is to evoke all this behind a mask of O’Neillian pride. To do this correctly is nothing short of a sacrifice—you cannot fake the paleness that Byrne wears as he steps onto the stage at the Walter Kerr. From his entrance, Byrne’s Jim Tyrone looks down at his shoes, and his eyes stay there for most of the play. Those of us who have known the James Tyrones of real life know that they always look at the floor. Throughout the night Byrne’s performance remains true: painfully raw and ungracefully poetic. But it is our first impression of him, a broken and downward-looking Irish-American beauty, a staggering gentleman at death’s door, that stays with us.
A Moon for the Misbegotten, by Eugene O’Neill, runs through June at the Welter Kerr Theater.