reasons for closing early: A Mourning Becomes Electra Post-Mortem

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The New Group’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra ― Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 trilogy setting the Oresteia myth in the household of Union general Ezra Mannon ― was supposed to run at the Acorn Theatre until April 18. It closed on Sunday. The New York Times‘ Arts Beat blog pointed out that “no reason for the early closing was given.” Huh.

After the jump we offer up a trio of reasons for the trilogy’s early closing.

1. The Casting We had high hopes and high expectations for Mourning Becomes Electra, particularly for the opportunity to see Lili Taylor onstage. Lisa in Six Feet Under, Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol ― is there anybody better suited to personify an “Electra Complex”? A glance at the program and we realized our ― or, rather, the casting director’s ― mistake: Taylor wasn’t playing the Electra character (Lavinia). She was playing the Clytemnestra character, Christine. Taylor’s Christine has none of the resolve you’d expect from the matron of a great household, poised to murder her husband and usurp the family fortune in concert with her young lover. Her aristocratic bearing came off as a flimsy cover for neediness and fragility, and Christine Mannon is not Blanche DuBois any more than Lili Taylor is Christine Mannon. It would be just as well to cast Mia Farrow as Phedre.

It was hard not to leave after the first play in the trilogy (“Homecoming”) but a sense of professional duty had us back in our seats for “The Hunted”, the second of three, and the play in which Orin (Orestes) returns home.

2. The Acting (and The Blocking) Not all of the production’s failures were the fault of the casting director: the acting was inexcusable, no matter the role. In fairness, this condemnation does not apply to Jena Malone, who managed both aspects of Lavinia’s personality ― daddy’s girl, but also Clytemnestra’s daughter. Otherwise, the only person “acting” at all was Joseph Cross, whose simpering Orin had less backbone than Buster Bluth. The other players seemed to have been reading the text for the first time, badly. But where the acting induced cringes, the blocking induced laughter. Christine and Captain Brant (Anson Mount) hatched their plot while dry humping. Ezra Mannon’s (Mark Blum) death throes suggested Jack Black being less restrained than usual. And so on. Curtain on part two.

Whatever sense of duty we have, it’s nowhere near as strong as Electra’s: by the time the third play started, we were eating Sichuan Noodles across the street at Ollie’s.

3. The Play The long ride back to Brooklyn gave us the opportunity to read “The Haunted”, the play we’d skipped. By the end of the “The Hunted”, Lavinia has driven Orin to kill Captain Brant and her mother to kill herself. In “The Haunted”, Orin, overcome with remorse at losing the one woman he loved (there’s an “Oedipus Complex” too) threatens to reveal the whole thing. Lavinia, in turn, drives Orin to kill himself. She’s turning into her mother, you see. O’Neill indicates this in all sorts of subtle ways. For instance, his characters often say things like, “You don’t know how like Mother you’ve become, Vinnie. I don’t mean only how pretty you’ve gotten.” Lest the point be missed, O’Neill included numerous hints in the stage directions for Lavinia, such as, “with a sudden flair of deliberately evil taunting that recalls her mother in the last scene of “Homecoming”, when she was goading Ezra Mannon to fury just before his murder.” Just to be clear.

It’s hard to say what the New Group could have done with this play even if there had been rehearsals. One moment during “The Hunted” suggested a possibility. Orin is looking for his mother. The lights go out, and cries of “Mother! Mother? Mother?!” are heard from every speaker in the house. The tactic was out of place in this bizarrely unambitious production, but an attempt at reviving Mourning Becomes Electra that isn’t DOA might consider building it into a strategy. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides didn’t write their plays to satisfy Freud’s schematic of the human psyche any more than they wrote to satisfy Aristotle’s rules for a well-built tragedy. (Aristotle was born decades after Euripides died.) But, O’Neill wrote Mourning Becomes Electra in slavish adherence to Freudian psychology, just as Milton (somewhat more felicitously) wrote Samson Agonistes in slavish adherence to Aristotelian poetics. So, why not do the whole thing as a shameless Freudian melo-psycho-drama? Just show the incest rather than not-so-subtly implying it; replace the Mannon family portraits with Dalí and O’Keefe paintings; skip the post-bellum estate and set it inside a human brain ― or a human groin!

Mourning Becomes Electra may not be a very good play, but it could be a great bad one.