Mourning Becomes Electra

  • Date:
    February 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall


    A review by Tulis McCall

    My friends have the brightest ideas. The one who attended this performance with me said there should be T-shirts for sale that said, �I survived Mourning Become Electra�. We then amended that idea to the effect that the T-shirts should only be available in the lobby after the curtain call and that they should be given away. No one should be made to pay for this twice.

    I recently read Mourning Becomes Electra. It took me about 6 hours. Originally the play ran over 6 hours and the audience took a meal break. Now, if the New Group had risked that, the actors might not have ended up delivering their lines at the speed of light. This means we would have understood what the characters said, what they meant, and what they wanted. As it is this evening at the theatre is more like sitting in a wind tunnel of words.

    The play is so universally off kilter that is nearly embarrassing. The actors are trying, by God, as actors usually do. Mr. Elliott, however, must have been dong something other than paying attention during the rehearsal process, or whatever it was he was smoking was clearly not the good stuff.

    Mourning Become Electra is the story of a family that caves in on itself through infidelity and murder. When it was produced in New York in the middle of a depression � and with a dinner break for the audience � it was shocking to see family members behaving so vilely toward one another. The production was also a success, probably because it was allowed to breathe. It was doubly shocking to see a family from the 1860�s portrayed as such a mean and miserable collection of people. We love our Civil War and don�t want it to be civil and familial at the same time. In this production, if you didn�t know the time period, you would be hard pressed to prove it. Women�s costumes do not feature corsets. They cross their legs when they sit in a casually contemporary way. They smoke cigarettes in holders and light them with butane lighters. The daughter�s hair is 2-3 inches long, and while it looks great on her it flies in the face of the text in which her beautiful long red hair is compared to her mother�s over and over again.

    In fact this entire production flies in the face of the text. To begin with, the stage of Acorn is miniscule compared to the scope of this story. The Mannons live in a mansion which here is reduced to smoke and mirrors. The actors don�t react, because they have not been given time to do so. You get the feeling that their listening is just waiting for the other actor to stop talking. Lili Taylor charges onstage in the first act with an energy level so high she has nowhere to go. She bobs along for four hours trapped in an air socket between cold water and the ice shelf above it. Jena Malone as Lavinia saunters about the stage as though reincarnated from The Women. Joseph Cross is woefully miscast as Orin Mannon. He fails the family resemblance that is a theme of the story, and he is woefully under equipped to handle a role of this size.

    Mark Blum has the best turn onstage. As the husband returning from the Civil War, he is the character everyone talks about, when he arrives he speaks with thought and deliberation, no doubt because the director never paid much attention to him because the part is small. Anyway, he dies about 20 minutes after he appears and comes back once as a corpse. The rest of the four hours I imagine he whiles away reading a pleasant book until the curtain call, where he is the only actor we are glad to see.

    O�Neill is nothing if not a wordsmith. Even his stage directions are complicated and extensive. He asks to be heard. In this production he was sentenced to sit in the corner with a gag in his mouth and a bag over his head.

    Tulis McCall


    What the press had to say.....

    What the press had to say.....

    "four hours of quicksand from which you begin to fear you will never, ever escape."
    Charles Isherwood
    New York Times

    "uneven, sometimes absurdly acted"
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "Wait a minute. This isn't a comedy. It's a tragedy, ... Why did the audience laugh? ... audiences know soap operas when they see them"
    Leonard Jacobs
    Back Stage

    "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."
    David Rooney
    Variety