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'Journey,' A Classic Of American Theater, Now Running At Geffen Playhouse

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The toxic influence of parents' broken dreams on the course of their children's lives has been a curiously prevalent theme in American literary drama - much more than in our movies or fiction (or in other national playwriting traditions, for that matter).Think Death of a Salesman, Glass Menagerie, Fences, August: Osage County, A Delicate Balance, Buried Child, and plenty of others. They all effectively illustrate the famous first couple lines of that Philip Larkin poem about "mum and dad."

Preeminent among these inter-generational dysfunctional family plays (along with Salesman), Eugene O'Neill's searingly autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night exposes us to a single fraught day, circa 1912, in the household of the Tyrone family, whose complex skein of mutual recriminations, disappointments, and regrets are reinforced by alcoholism and drug addiction. Not seen until after O'Neill's death in the 1950s, Long Day's Journey has been revived and filmed many times over the intervening decades, with a panoply of legendary actors tackling the four main roles. It's also been on Broadway twice in the past 15 years alone.

Clocking in at 3 hours and 20 minutes, Los Angeles director Jeanie Hackett's new staging at the Geffen Playhouse runs almost a half hour shorter than the Broadway version last year, but any production of Long Day's Journey is an emotionally grueling challenge to audience stamina. There was a little grumbling heard in the seats around us when the house lights went up at intermission and the play's conclusion, but we were enthralled pretty much the whole time.

Heading up a very fine cast are the versatile actor Alfred Molina and veteran TV and stage actress Jane Kaczmarek as the Tyrone parents, James and Mary. Confronting his wife's relapse into morphine addiction, his younger son's diagnosis with a likely fatal illness, and his own shortcomings as the family patriarch, Molina's James is excessive neither in rage nor despair, though he indulges in both. Alternating between denial and incomprehension of the debilitating mutual resentments in which his family is mired, Molina never lets our sympathy for James flag, even as we recognize his prominent share of responsibility for the abiding discord. In the second act, as Mary succumbs to the narcotic influence, Kaczmarek is moving and tragic in her descent into delirium, punctuated by moments of bitter clarity, which culminates in the play's crushing last line.

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As the Tyrones' older, more aggressive son, Jamie, actor Stephen Louis Grush (hardly recognizable as the same actor who starred in Sex With Strangers llast year at the Geffen) saves his power for what might be the most intense of the play's many soliloquies to near the end, when he advises his brother to avoid his own malevolent influence. As O'Neill's self-representation figure, Edmund, actor Colin Woodell is no shrinking violet in confronting the other three, more extravagantly voluble family personages, and subtly, but forcefully, guides our own impressions of and reactions to the stew of troubles boiling up in the Tyrone family cauldron.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz and lighting designer Elizabeth Harper have made an evocative milieu of the Tyrones' Connecticut home, perhaps only too impressive for the house that Mary describes once or twice as disappointingly meager. Denitsa Blizakova's costumes are spot on. Proscenium projections and muddled spoken word recordings at the beginning of the performance and in between scenes add little, but also do not distract us from the full immersion into the perpetually unresolvable family turmoil which Hackett and company treat us to.

Long Day's Journey Into Night runs seven performances a week at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through March 18. Tickets $43-$90 ($25.80-$58 discounts available for some dates on Goldstar)