David Suchet Barks; Olivier Award Tips: London Stage

David Suchet as James in ``Long Day's Journey Into Night'' by Eugene O'Neill. Suchet, famous for his portrayal of Hercule Poirot on television, plays a former classical actor whose talent has deserted him. Photographer: Johan Persson/Jo Allan PR via Bloomberg

Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is three hours of misery, despair and dysfunction in search of a plot. It’s also a superb vehicle for great actors with the requisite theatrical chops. A new production offers three dazzling and passionate performances.

The action is set in 1912. Laurie Metcalf (from “Roseanne”) is Mary Tyrone, a mother fighting a losing battle with morphine addiction and self-hatred. It’s a role full of tenderness and barbed passive-aggressive darts -- “I know you didn’t mean to humiliate me” -- which Metcalf delivers with a beguiling motherly vulnerability. As the morphine takes hold she gabbles and slurs her words, inviting both pity and contempt. No monster, she.

David Suchet (“Poirot”) is Mary’s husband James, an alcoholic miser and former star actor. He squabbles with his feckless offspring, and snarls at his wife’s retreat into drug abuse. Suchet employs the fruity delivery and grand gestures of an old-style Shakespearean to portray a man pretending his life isn’t crumbling into dust.

Kyle Soller is their son Edmund, a guilt-plagued tyro writer suffering from consumption. He’s living on the edge, facing death, trying to fan a spark of creativity in his soul. Soller is like a caged bird, frantically beating his wings.

Family Showdowns

The son’s fight with his father, in which he screams that his parent is too tightfisted to give him a chance of recovery in a good sanatorium, is a humdinger.

All three measure their performances beautifully. They save energy for the big showdowns, invest every moment with telling details, and find ways to vary displays of despair. Director Anthony Page does a solid job, drawing fine performances and avoiding gimmicky scenic interventions.

The production looks handsome, on a set that recreates the wooden parlor of a beachside summer home, circa 1912.

It all helps to take your mind off the rambling and repetitive exposition, the overlong buildup to the father-son climax, and the redundant secondary climax (another fight between Edmund and his brother James, played by the lukewarm Trevor White).

Structure was never O’Neill’s strong point. His talent lay in stripping characters bare, layer by layer, with forensic precision.

It’s little surprise that three such deeply committed actors look dazed and shell shocked at the end of the evening. The wonder is that it’s a pleasure to watch them expose such dark places of the soul. Rating: ***.

Olivier Rivalry

O’Neill also crops up in the Olivier Awards, the U.K. theater world’s annual self-administered pat on the back, which will be announced on April 15. The playwright’s “Anna Christie” is up for four prizes: best actress (Ruth Wilson), best actor (Jude Law), best revival and best lighting (both Donmar Warehouse). Not bad for a lumbering symbolic drama about a reformed trollop pining for love.

Terrific as Law was in that piece playing the beefcake love object, he faces tough competition. Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller are joint nominees for sharing the role of the monster in “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre. James Corden is named for his sterling work in the multinominated farce “One Man, Two Guvnors.” (Nicholas Hytner is on the list for the latter as best director.)

I hope Law gets it, though I suspect it’ll go to funny-man Corden.

The list of nominees shows what a good year it has been for comedy: the laugh-a-second “Noises Off,” amusing “Much Ado About Nothing” and zany “The Ladykillers” all contend.

Clockwork Comedy

My money is on the Old Vic’s “Noises Off” winning best revival for its flawless, clockwork precision. “One Man, Two Guvnors” has to be a shoe-in for best new play. (Even if, since it was written in 1743, this adaptation is technically a revival. Who wants to split hairs?)

It’s a tough call for best actress. Celia Imrie was hilarious as an amorous actress in “Noises Off”; Marcia Warren was a delightfully dotty old lady in “The Ladykillers.” How to compare them with the glacial Kristin Scott Thomas (“Betrayal”) or restrained Lesley Manville (in Mike Leigh’s “Grief”)?

The most-nominated show is the lively musical “Matilda” about a downtrodden little girl with magical powers. It has 10 citations, including one for all four little girls who play the title role, and another one for best musical.

Girl Gaggle

Though I was blown away by “Ghost: The Musical,” only a blockhead would bet on anything other than a gaggle of cute little girls. I can hear their shrieks already.

English National Opera has three of the four nominations for best opera production. Since two of those are for the appalling “Castor and Pollux” and dreary “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I can only assume the selection panel wanted to play a strange practical joke. Their third nomination is for “The Passenger,” David Pountney’s wonderful production of a third-rate piece. Not a great list.

Otherwise, the nominations show a theater scene in rude health. All to be revealed on April 15.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is at the Apollo Theatre. Information: http://www.nimaxtheatres.com +44-844-482-9671. For more about the Olivier Awards, see http://www.olivierawards.com.

Today’s Muse highlights: Jason Harper on Jeep, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology, Farah Nayeri's London weekend.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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