On a rainy Tuesday morning, the actor John Gallagher Jr. settled into a chair in a lounge above the American Airlines Theater and described a bleary night off, which began with beers in a Park Slope bar and ended with margaritas in a Clinton Hill taqueria. “I had a lot of real booze last night,” he told his cast mates, “which I’m regretting now.”
These days, Mr. Gallagher and his fellow actors are already drinking plenty of the fake stuff on the job, as part of the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which opens on Wednesday, April 27. Written in the 1940s, with the stipulation (long since disregarded) that it should never be performed, the play is a singeing union of fiction and autobiography, recording a single bourbon-soaked day — from morning to past midnight — in the Connecticut summer house of the Tyrones, an Irish-American clan closely based on O’Neill’s own family.
In Jonathan Kent’s production, Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story”) plays the mother, Mary Tyrone, a former convent girl now struggling with morphine addiction, a role Ms. Lange first took on in London 16 years ago. Gabriel Byrne (“In Treatment”) is her husband, James, a prosperous actor in melodrama, who fears he has sacrificed his art for material success. Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays the older son, Jamie, an alcoholic “Broadway loafer.” Mr. Gallagher (“The Newsroom”) is the younger son, Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, whose burgeoning career as a writer is threatened by tuberculosis.
The production joins several recent high-profile revivals of O’Neill’s late work — “A Moon for the Misbegotten” at the Williamstown Theater Festival, “The Iceman Cometh” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and most recently, this season’s short-lived revival of “Hughie” on Broadway.
In street clothes and under ordinary lighting, the “Long Day’s” performers may not look like much of a family, but onstage they achieve the rhythms of people who have lived close together, happily and unhappily. Offstage, there are hints of kinship, too. They know how to rile and how to soothe, how to tease and how to praise.
Before an afternoon rehearsal and an evening performance, they spoke about playing haunted, playing drunk and planning a Tyrone family picnic. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What work did you have to do to feel like a family, to become the Tyrones?
JESSICA LANGE It’s just honoring the play, honoring the writing. It’s all there. You arrive at a deadly truth, because of what O’Neill has written and the way he’s written it.
MICHAEL SHANNON It’s one of those plays where you read a page, and it directs you to a story in your past. So you tell that story. The next thing you know, you have this quilt of all these shared experiences. More than anything, it’s a matter of getting to know one another. You do as much bonding in the tea breaks as you do running the scenes.
GABRIEL BYRNE A genius of the play is that although it’s an extremely autobiographical piece, it transcends his family and becomes kind of a universal family. I don’t know how that happens, but people sit in the audience and relate to the characters.
LANGEWe had an experience at our first matinee. We had close to 200 New York City schoolchildren in the audience. They were so intent on listening to this play. There was a moment where Edmund says to Mary, “It’s pretty hard at times having a dope fiend for a mother.” And there was this gasp, audibly, that came out of the audience. You knew it was these children. Everybody connects to it for one reason or another.
Does this play make you think about your own families, your own inheritance?
SHANNON My dad really loved O’Neill. He would go and see these plays in their original incarnations on Broadway. He’s passed away, but it’s still kind of a way of connecting to him. It would blow his mind if he knew I was doing this. But there were never any rehearsals where we were piled on the floor, sobbing. We all seem to be fairly pragmatic actors. We’re not trying to beat [up] ourselves and each other. We just want to tell the story.
JOHN GALLAGHER JR. Even if you don’t have such an extreme family dynamic, there’s still something in that three and a half hours that will feel really relevant.
In his dedication, O’Neill described the play as a reckoning with “all the four haunted Tyrones.” What haunts them?
LANGE It is a bit of a ghost play.
GALLAGHER Edmund talks a lot about ghosts. By the end of the play, I refer to Mom as a ghost.
LANGE Each one of the characters has a past that they are still so profoundly connected to, because life now has become so untenable. Being able to move almost like a ghost back and forth between times, that’s how Mary survives.
BYRNE They are incredibly sensitive people. They are torn apart by the reality of living and try to escape from it, either through memory or through drink or through drugs. Sometimes life can just be so appalling.
LANGE I came upon a Yeats quote, which I think has a lot to do with this play. I really see this so much as an Irish play: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
BYRNE I hate to say it, but I think that’s a lot of bollocks. It sounds great, but actually when you examine it, it’s a way of defining an entire people with an easy kind of aphorism. We are a very complex multifaceted family of human beings.
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LANGE You don’t think there’s an abiding sense of tragedy in the Irish? Come on!
BYRNE No, I think tragedy has been foisted on them. Just my own opinion. But you and Mr. Yeats ——
LANGE No, no, no. I’m not going to argue with a [expletive] Irishman.
Is there any secret to playing drunk or doped up?
SHANNON Jonathan, our director, never really made a big thing about it. It’s not like people get drunk and all act the same way.
GALLAGHER Yeah, it’s kind of specific. When Edmund enters in Act IV, he’s had about 15 whiskeys from noon to midnight. He just kind of gets angry. He spends so much of the play trying to cover things up. It takes 15 whiskeys to actually say, “It’s your fault, you’re to blame.”
LANGE As far as morphine, I could do every scene on the nod, which wouldn’t do much for playing the scene. It’s delicate there. You really have to temper that drug of choice, whether it’s alcohol or morphine, with honoring the text and telling the story. Otherwise it would be a bit of a mess.
GALLAGHER You think the play is repetitive now! If we were really drunk, it would be one line over and over again.
BYRNE If it weren’t for the alcohol in the play, it would be over in 10 minutes. It’s a brilliant dramatic device for allowing the characters to tell the truth to each other.
O’Neill sometimes doubted his abilities with language. What does the language in this play give you?
LANGE If he was writing it with the intention of its being read but never played, what he achieved was pretty astonishing. I don’t think there’s ever a moment where the language feels stilted or unnatural.
SHANNON I think it’s some of the strongest dialogue I’ve ever said in my life. Maybe he was comparing it to what he read, because he was so incredibly well read and was surrounded by beautiful poetry.
BYRNE There’s an incredible precision to the language — where he places the full stops and how he runs the rhythms in the speeches together. You can’t say that it’s naturalistic speech, just as you can’t say it’s a naturalistic play, and yet, it is. But I found the dialogue hard to learn.
SHANNON Well there was definitely bellyaching about all the “For God’s sake,” “For Christ’s sake,” “For Pete’s sake.”
GALLAGHER Everybody has their own thing that just comes up again and again, varied ever so slightly.
LANGE It is like a piece of music, theme and variation.
SHANNON But family is repetitive. My mother has told me the same 20 stories my whole life. But every time, it’s as if she’s never told it to me before. My sister just visited this weekend. She saw the play Saturday night. Same thing with her. Same stories, same issues. Nothing is ever resolved.
This play may not take a full day to perform, but it is long and each character suffers a lot. Is it difficult to act?
LANGE You wouldn’t do this if you wanted to enter into something casually. I found that Mary Tyrone demands more than any character I’ve ever played. Blanche comes close. Frances Farmer comes close. This part more than any and this play more than any, it’s a real step off into the abyss. We realized from the beginning is that nobody could hold back.
SHANNON To me, it feels like a real privilege to do this play. It feels like being admitted into some secret society or something. There’s a lot of good actors in the world, but they don’t all get to do this.
BYRNE There’s one thing you can never get away from: It’s O’Neill’s ruthless honesty, the bravery that he has. What he’s addressing perhaps is a kind of nihilism about life. Love does not save you. Family doesn’t save you. Truth, the expression of it, doesn’t save you. You still push into night. Faith doesn’t really mean anything in the face of darkness. There’s a kind of comfort in knowing that we are all headed that way.
What do you do when the show finishes? Do you have a real drink together?
SHANNON We mostly see each other onstage. We kind of disappear afterward. We had this notion of, “Oh, we’re going to have family dinners and bonding time.” None of it has happened.
BYRNE It’s very true. We meet on the stage, and we meet in those moments. We’ve developed this bond as characters, not as people. Or am I wrong about that?
SHANNON I’m looking forward to maybe eventually having a picnic.
BYRNE In Central Park.
LANGE A potluck.
GALLAGHER All the Tyrones.
BYRNE Long Night’s Journey Into Day.