The Vulnerable Woman

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There's no denying it: Jessica Lange is one gutsy lady. Other recent visitors to London's Theaterland from Hollywood left the cozy shelter of the studio to star in light crowd pleasers (though the crowds were not always pleased, as Donald Sutherland discovered in the disastrous Enigmatic Variations). Lange, though, uses her occasional West End forays as serious, high-risk attempts to find out or let theater audiences know just how good she is. The two-time Oscar-winning actress specializes in vulnerable roles (they don't come much more vulnerable than being pursued by an amorous King Kong in her 1976 screen debut); her first, successful stage appearance in London was as the neurotic Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in 1996. Now she returns to square up to that other great damaged female of American theater, Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Any play whose main theme is summed up when a principal character vehemently declares, "We are such stuff as manure is made on," is hardly likely to be a barrel of laughs. But in Long Day's Journey, O'Neill's most autobiographical work, the author turns the idea of the happy family upside down and smashes its head on the ground for three and a half hours. Of the four characters, one is an alcoholic, one is an alcoholic miser, one is a dope fiend and the other is stricken with consumption. Strange then that this production, directed by Robin Phillips, at the Lyric Theatre, is perversely rather fun.

Phillips draws strong performances from his big-name cast yet fails to inject the sense of concentrated decay that should give the work its terrible momentum. The actors have too much space to swagger, though they do that wonderfully well.

And Phillips gets a lot right. The set is a large though sparsely furnished New England country house, in which the surfaces seem to have been drained of color, all blues that were once bright and whites that were once cream. At times, the mist that Mary Tyrone dreads seeps through the house like death, while foghorns wail in the distance.

Lange is tremendous in this role, and not a little frightening. As her addiction to morphine takes hold, she seems to diminish to an almost spectral figure. When she refers to "the spare room" (where the drugs are kept), it is with a shudder, as though a ghost lurks there the ghost she is set to become. Constantly scared, Lange's Mary retreats to the walls, hugging the edge of a bookcase or just occasionally her husband for comfort. In such times of weakness her voice darts erratically up the stave as she struggles to control her panic. And throughout, in her sudden, pleading glances can be seen the frail, lost girl who somewhere along the way got broken.

At her side is Charles Dance as husband James Tyrone. Dance, something of a screen star himself (Jewel in the Crown, Alien 3, Michael Collins) has never had the kind of movie success that was once predicted for him he apparently turned down the role of James Bond. But this striking portrayal, following his acclaimed turn last year in C.P. Taylor's play Good, confirms his emergence as one of Britain's finest stage actors. The character is an actor, and the leonine Dance enjoyably depicts a man bloated by his own charisma. He doesn't stand, he strikes attitudes. Dance catches Tyrone's coldness but misses the weakness that makes him deteriorate to the point of alcoholism. What he does have is a sense of the man's love for his family, which explains why he is tolerated so much.

The two sons are played by Paul Nicholls (a British soap opera star who rises to the occasion) and Paul Rudd. Nicholls, something of a heartthrob in his country, displays a previously unsuspected ability to find real, resigned sadness behind his good looks. Rudd a rising name in Hollywood after leading roles in hits like Clueless and The Cider House Rules as the whisky-guzzling James Junior is the only real disappointment, never suggesting the vital edge of desperation.

No doubt the true sense of a cohesive tragedy will grip the production once it has played in, but until then it is the writer's grim humor that stands out. O'Neill grew up in a household just like this one, he hit the bottle and was committed to a sanatorium. And yet, remarkably, he was able to pepper his play with laugh-lines (there's a hilariously affectionate moment when the usually cheapskate Tyrone senior demonstrates his love for his son by ostentatiously turning on all the lights in the house). He must have found something in the bottom of that whisky glass.