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‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ a powerful revival

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange star in

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange star in "Long Days Journey into Night" at the American Airlines Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

This is it. Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is the pinnacle of mid-20th century American realistic drama — a simple but emotionally epic testament by the father of American playwriting to his Irish-American family and the vices that destroyed them.

The Roundabout Theatre Company is finishing off its season with a strong revival of the four-hour tragedy staged by English director Jonathan Kent and led by a powerful quartet of actors: Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr.

As the play opens, it is morning at the family’s summer cottage and James Tyrone (Byrne), an aging actor and landowner, is embracing his beautiful wife Mary (Lange), as their sons Jamie (Shannon) and Edmund (Gallagher) finish breakfast.

But it doesn’t take long before they are forced to face the music: Edmund is suffering from tuberculosis; Jamie is a lazy, wasteful alcoholic; Mary is addicted to morphine; and James’ obsessive penny-pinching may have caused everyone’s doom.

This is an extremely difficult play to pull off, relying on rich prose instead of overt action and featuring miserable characters basking in overwhelming despair. The performances here are exceptional all around, but the production is likely to grow smoother and more engrossing as the run continues. The stylized and spare set design is distracting and looks incomplete.

Lange’s Mary is a performance of unmistakable stature and refined acting ability. If Vanessa Redgrave was more visceral and disturbing in the play’s 2003 revival, Lange exhibits more dramatic control, emphasizing Mary’s downward progression from denial and erratic mood swings into drug-induced euphoria.

As James, Byrne shows vulnerability behind the miserly and defensive exterior. He also can’t help but be the most authentically Irish. Gallagher, who is made to look eerily similar to a young Eugene O’Neill (who this character is based upon), emphasizes Edmund’s sensitivity, weak health and occasional excitement. Shannon, in contrast, looks imposing and revels in Jamie’s sarcasm.

If you go

“Long Day’s Journey into Night” plays at the American Airlines Theatre through June 26. 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org.

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