Brian Paulette: Cornering the Role

In ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten,’ the Actor Returns as Guilt-Ridden Alcoholic James Tyrone Jr.

Brian Paulette finds himself on a track shared by no other local actor — and by very few in New York or elsewhere.

When Paulette takes the stage in the Kansas City Actors Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” he will for the second time step into the shoes of James Tyrone Jr. — a guilt-ridden character in the late stages of alcoholism explicitly modeled on the playwright’s older brother.

Paulette first played James in KCAT’s 2013 excellent production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Now a bit of historical perspective: In 1941 Eugene O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey,” his most personal play, an intense drama based on his family. The characters included James Tyrone, a successful, aging touring actor who feels he squandered his talent; his wife, Mary Tyrone, a haunted morphine addict; James Tyrone Jr., their hard-drinking eldest son, also an actor; and his younger brother Edmund Tyrone, the O’Neill surrogate, who suffers from TB.

“Long Day’s Journey” is considered O’Neill’s finest play, a searing but compassionate familial portrait written before anyone had heard the term “dysfunctional family.”

The following year O’Neill began work on
“A Moon for the Misbegotten,” in which we see an older, more dissolute version of James Jr. in his role as a landlord in rural Connecticut. His intense if elliptical relationship with Josie Hogan, a tenant farmer’s daughter who outwardly plays the slut while actually remaining chaste, is the heart of this play about guilt, grace and redemption.

By playing James a second time, Paulette follows a path trod by Jason Robards Jr., the actor most closely associated with O’Neill’s plays. Robards played Tyrone first in a 1956 production of “Long Day’s Journey” and again in the 1973 Broadway revival of “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” (Late in his stage career, in 1988, he appeared as the elder James Tyrone in a revival of “Long Day’s Journey.”)

Kevin Spacey later followed a similar track, playing James Jr. on Broadway in “Long Day’s Journey” in 1988 and in “Moon” in 2007.

Some of those performances exist on film and video, but Paulette says he won’t watch another actor’s interpretation of Tyrone.

“That is one thing I do actively avoid,” Paulette said. “Regardless of what show we’re talking about, I always try to avoid anyone else’s take on it. It’s impossible to prevent anyone else’s performance from seeping into your mind and subconsciously affecting your performance.”

Paulette, a member of KCAT’s artistic committee, said “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was a play the company had considered doing for a long time.

“It’s been on our radar for years,” he said. “I would have to say, if memory serves, we’ve probably been looking at the possibility of doing it as long as ‘Long Day’s Journey.’ But after ‘Long Day’s Journey’ this did seem like the logical next step.”

O’Neill was famous — or notorious — for his detailed stage directions and obsessively specific character descriptions. In “Moon,” for example, James Jr. is described as “five feet nine, broad-shouldered and deep-chested. His naturally fine physique has become soft and soggy from dissipation, but his face is still good-looking, despite its unhealthy puffiness and the bags under the eyes . . . His eyes are brown, the whites congested and yellowish. His nose, big and aquiline, gives his face a certain Mephistophelian quality which is accentuated by his habitually cynical expressions. But when he smiles without sneering, he still has the ghost of a former youthful, irresponsible Irish charm . . .”

Paulette said it’s always good to honor the playwright’s intent, but the best available actor might not satisfy O’Neill’s specifications. As it turns out, Paulette is in his early 40s, which makes him the ideal age to play James.

On the other hand, Paulette said he’s in the best physical condition of his life. If anything, he weighed more when he played James in “Long Day’s Journey.” “I don’t have any plan to gain weight or stop going to the gym,” he said. “Fortunately, there are no shirtless scenes in the play.”

He can accomplish the illusion of puffiness, he said, by shifting posture and relaxing his waist.

“I tend to have pretty bad posture anyway, so that helps,” he said.

Josie, to be played by Ashley Pankow, is described by O’Neill in similarly exacting detail: “She is so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak . . . Her sloping shoulders are broad, her chest deep with large, firm breasts, her waist wide but slender by contrast with her hips and thighs. She has long smooth arms, immensely strong, although no muscles show. The same is true of her legs. She is more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man . . . But there is no mannish quality about her. She is all woman.”

Clearly, finding an actress who might conform to cartoonist R. Crumb’s version of a feminine physique is no simple matter. The petite Pankow, as anyone who has seen her on stage knows, would never be considered brawny.

“The description of Josie was always a stopping point for us,” Paulette said. “The question was whether we had anyone in town who could fit this exacting and, honestly, hard-to-find character.”

What came to mind, Paulette said, was the sword-wielding Brienne of Tarth on “Game of Thrones.”

But then the decision was reached to simply find the best actress for the production, physical dimensions be damned.

“We knew we had plenty of talented actresses who could bring the heart and could do the part and that’s what’s most important,” he said.

A number of talented women read for the part, Paulette said, but ultimately director Mark Robbins chose Pankow.

“Interestingly, I had worked with her before in ‘The Realistic Joneses,’” he said. “But in that play and other plays I’ve seen her in, she tends to play very different kinds of characters. She tends to be cast as the cute, bubbly blonde. She wouldn’t have been the person I assumed would go in there and nail the audition like she did.”

In addition to his verbose stage directions, O’Neill’s dialogue poses certain challenges for actors. He uses vernacular but also lends a certain formality to the language.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Paulette said. “It’s challenging in that his plays are very long-winded. On a very basic level, there’s a lot of words to remember. People talk. There are also interesting word choices and period language. There’s something in the way he uses language that’s casual enough to make it sound natural, but complicated enough to communicate ideas.”

When playing Tyrone, Paulette said he never loses sight of the reality the character came from — that he is based on O’Neill’s brother.

“For me personally, it definitely adds an extra layer of pressure to get it right,” he said. “This was a real guy who lived an incredibly messed-up life. He was born with a bit of a silver spoon in his mouth and from there everything went downhill. Any theater professional . . . has an immense amount of respect for Eugene O’Neill. And this was his big brother, who basically drank himself to death. So you do feel a certain amount of responsibility to do the guy justice.”

But in one way, playing Tyrone for the second time makes his job a little easier.

“With any character you have to invent a certain amount of backstory to inform the choices you make,” he said. “You’ve got a history there you’ve kind of created from scratch. This is the first time I’ve ever had to play a character whose backstory I’ve already experienced. ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ is part of Jim Tyrone’s backstory. I don’t have to come up with fictional versions of what his mom and dad were like. I remember them. And that’s pretty neat. That’s probably the most exciting part of this.”

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs Sept. 12 through 30 at City Stage at Union Station. The cast includes Brian Paulette, Ashley Pankow, Victor Raider-Wexler, Chris Roady and Charlie Spillers. For more information and tickets, 816-235-6222 or www.kcactors.org.

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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