Electra Lacks Electricity

mourning-electraThe New Group production of Mourning Becomes Electra

Eugene O'Neill's 1931 retelling of Aeschelus' Oresteia is set in New England in 1865, in the wake of the Civil War. It's a setting that reflects the kind of internecine conflicts that also caused the Trojan Wars, and as in the original, the family awaits the return of their paterfamilias, Brigadier General Ezra Mannon, and their son, Orin, from the fighting. The piece is comprised of three separate plays that together form a more-than-four-hour-long orgy of incestuous love and death, with betrayal, revenge, suffering, and madness as stopping points along the way. With a Greek chorus of villagers gazing on, the Mannon family devours itself in its chilly manse on the hill in slow, sex-soaked bites. Daughter loves father and hates mother. Mother loves son, hates husband, and goads lover into killing him. Then son loves sister, and -- well, let's just say that it all ends in tears.

The feeling of doom that hangs over the play from its opening minutes is exacerbated in this production by a cast that moves towards its collective destiny in an oddly languid way. Scott Elliott, founding artistic director of The New Group, has produced some dynamic work in the past, notably with productions of Mike Leigh plays. But here, he has established a collective lassitude to the pace that make the characters' reactions to one another seem always a half-beat out of sync. Their actions appear simply pre-ordained, rather than provoked by unbearable, devouring passions. We never quite believe in the sexuality that motivates them, because there is no real chemistry between any combination of the actors.

Lili Taylor, as the irresistible temptress who is Colonel Mannon's adulterous wife, Christine, can't make up her mind if she's evil, or just a woman in love. Her character must embody the passions of mother, lover, and murderess, but Taylor plays her as softly spoken and strangely pliant. She loses the battle of wills with her daughter in the first act, and never convinces us of her steeliness again.

Jena Malone, with a spiky, hip haircut and a defiantly cocked chin, is the pain-in-the-ass adolescent who so successfully defies Mom. An oddly anachronistic figure, too modern for her day, Lavinia moves from petulance and defiance to murderous madness. But Malone herself doesn't develop. We never really watch her triumph or crumble -- just inexorably progress to the next level of destruction. The men in these ball-busting women's life don't have a chance. Marc Blum as the respected warrior Ezra Manning, emasculated by his wife's disdain; Anson Mount as Christine's eager lover, Captain Adam Brant, and Joseph Cross as Orin, Christine's too-adored son, put in doughty but forgettable performances. None of them convinces us they are capable of producing the sizzle that we must believe sets their women alight, smoldering with lust and murder.

Mourning Becomes Electra is considered one of O'Neill's great studies in human anguish, another of his epic chronicles of Man's descent into darkness. It's clear that he was much enamored of Freud's work when he wrote it -- we can't fail to hear Freud's ghost clanking his chains around the stage. Ironically, that's one reason why productions of the play often fail, as this one does: It's a difficult play for a post-Freudian audience to care about.

Unlike in his most acclaimed tragedies, these characters' stories were already written. Like the mythological figures they're based on, the Mannon family members are driven by destiny rather than by their psychology, and the somber forces that work on them are beyond human intervention.

And if that's the case, then how can we care about them? Especially for four and a half hours. - Sue Woodman

Acorn Theater
410 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200
Through April 18, 2009

sue-woodman.jpg

Ms. Woodman is an ex-Brit and veteran journalist with a keen eye for detail.

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