A 'Moon for the Misbegotten' that casts a searing glow

A Moon for the Misbegotten. Play by Eugene O'Neill. Starring Kate Nelligan, Ian Bannen, and Jerome Kilty. Directed by David Leveaux. There's a healthy sense of familiarity on entering the Cort Theatre for the new revival of ''A Moon for the Misbegotten.'' The first thing you see is Brien Vahey's rendition of the beat-up Connecticut farmyard where nearly all the action takes place, and there's nothing newfangled or showoffy about it. It's as timeless as it is storm-beaten, as stolid as it is ramshackle. It breathes the great, sad, classic spirit of Eugene O'Neill, setting the tone for an evening of searing, no-nonsense theatrics.

The performances follow suit. Chief among them is Kate Nelligan's portrayal of Josie Hogan, the farmer's daughter whose aggressive sensuality masks a craving to love and to nurture. Nelligan plays her strongly, even boldly, without ever losing sight of the hidden tenderness that defines her far more profoundly than her coarse talk and loose behavior.

As her father, forever swinging between mischievous blarney and drunken schemes, Jerome Kilty becomes a grizzled archetype, as basic as the stony land from which his character scratches a living. Though he plays a catalyst in the action, not a protagonist, he's an essential pillar of the drama -- serving, through the rude Phil Hogan, as a rock-bottom constant in the haunted and treacherous universe O'Neill surrounds his characters with.

More problematic is Ian Bannen as O'Neill's own surrogate, James Tyrone Jr. A failed actor tormented by his past and desperately aware of his inadequacies, he's a hard figure to play, requiring a tightrope walk between self-pity on one side and mere abjectness on the other.

Bannen portrays him in an actorly way, tossing off some delicate lines with city-slicker casualness, declaiming others like the sincere ham Tyrone probably is onstage. It's an oddly off-center performance, but that quality suits the character, who is goaded by enough demons to justify far stranger quirks. In any case, however one responds to this or that line reading, Bannen's presence is fresh and provocative throughout, especially when his eyes register a hollow despair at certain affecting junctures.

Since this is an urgent, vivid mounting of a play set in New England -- and written by a deeply American dramatist, though with Irish roots - it's interesting to note that many of its participants have British theatrical origins. The production itself was born at Riverside Studios in London before the current revised version had its United States premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

London was also the site of Nelligan's training and early experience. Bannen started his career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has many West End credits. Set and costume designer Vahey is in residence at Riverside Studios, as is director David Leveaux, who deserves hearty praise for assembling all of the above (plus Kilty and two good supporting players) into a most penetrating evening of pure O'Neill served at full strength.

This proves, once again, that matters of nationality and background give way easily to the soaring momentum of O'Neill's dark vision. (An all-black version of ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' made the same point with special force not long ago.) Despite the oft-cited faults in his work -- the rough dialogue, the sprawling structures, the repetitions that aren't quite needed - he remains a towering figure in modern drama, speaking to new audiences with ease and assurance.

This fact and the specific impact of ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' were certainly demonstrated 11 years ago on Broadway by Jose Quintero's production starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, an expertly crafted affair which was so hugely applauded as to be somewhat overrated, in my view. Under the guidance of director Leveaux, the new ''Moon'' deserves to stand beside it in the annals of first-rate O'Neill interpretation.

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