The sins of the forefathers come home to roost like buzzards in Eugene O'Neill's 1931 American Gothic trilogy, "Mourning Becomes Electra."
This bleak tragedy, originally more than six hours long, has been condensed into four compelling hours of drama by Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group, in this production at off-Broadway's Acorn Theatre. But it's still a very long day's journey into a bleak night of the human soul.
Modeled on "The Oresteia" by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, O'Neill's version added Freudian themes to the three plays, which are titled "Homecoming," "The Hunted" and "The Haunted."
The self-destructive, privileged, Puritanical Mannon family hurtles toward doom as the American Civil War is ending. After hushing up an illegitimacy two generations earlier, the shipbuilding Mannons have maintained an upright facade in their small, seaside New England town. But somehow, the last two generations of Mannons manage to magnify their forebear's relatively minor sin of lust into four deaths, amid an epic display of infidelity, rage, jealousy, incest and insanity.
Except for Gen. Ezra Mannon (movingly portrayed by Mark Blum), the other family members are pitiless, consumed with revenge and hatred toward one another. Elliott, who also directs, has provided a minimum of humor in this barrage of unconscionable behavior, grim consequences and some strange interludes.
Ezra, who is also a judge and the town mayor, is now expected home from the war, soon to be followed by his injured son, Orin (Joseph Cross), who was pushed into soldiering to make a man of him.
Lili Taylor is a dominant, sensual force as Ezra's hate-filled wife, Christine, a scheming, murderous adulteress. Jena Malone is her seething, conniving daughter, Vinnie (the Electra figure of the play's title.)
Mother and daughter vie for the affections of an illegitimate cousin, handsome young sea captain Adam Brant, ably played by Anson Mount. Brant's desire for revenge against Ezra, who failed to help Brant's ill mother before she died, is the catalyst that will bring down the Mannon dynasty.
Christine's fury at Ezra for 23 wasted, loveless years doesn't ring true as a motive for murder, despite Taylor's efforts to portray a human side to her monstrous character. She wrings some much-needed levity out of early dialogue by the sheer force of her delivery.
Malone wears a mask of righteous anger in the first two plays, seeming stiff and colorless, but she's carefully concealing her character's true malevolence. Vinnie flowers into a flirtatious, amoral copy of her murderous mother as the plot evolves. Malone dominates the third play, embodying the steely will of her character as she tries in vain to protect her weak-willed brother and fight the Mannon curse.
Cross gets a few laughs playing Orin as an appealing, hapless mama's boy who tries to manfully cope with the death of his father. Burdened with serious Oedipal problems, his better nature is too easily manipulated by the vile scheming of his mother and vengeful sister.
Derek McLane's sepulchral set, skillfully suggesting an unhappy tomb of a mansion, is beautifully lighted by Jason Lyons. Carefully designed period costumes by Susan Hilferty convey at a glance the nature of each character. Shane Rettig's atonal sound design, along with original music by jazz musician Pat Metheny, contribute to the general air of madness and evil.
O'Neill's view of his fellow Americans was neither sanguine nor compassionate when he wrote this play, and Elliott's production is faithful to the non-cathartic original. When the Yankee Electra marches to her doom with chin held high, the greatest emotion for the audience is relief that this clan has come to its end.
The Mannons do their evil deeds at the Acorn through April 18.
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