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    An Old Favorite, Revisited: “Mourning Becomes Electra”

    Chekhov, for his part, said that one must “bring the people up to Gogol, and not Gogol down to the people.” It’s an old question: Should artists attempt to appeal to a general, popular audience or would they be better off to create something they believe has a high aesthetic quality, which may only interest a small, select crowd?

    It’s evident which way Scott Elliott and his company, The New Group, have decided to answer the age-old question in their new production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic tragedy “Mourning Becomes Electra,” to mostly disappointing effects.

    The production is paced at break-neck speed, which isn’t a surprising choice, because the play can be considered long for a contemporary audience. The 1931 original production ran five-and-a-half hours, while a recent successful London production ran four-and-a half. The New Group’s foray, however, rattles to the finish line at just over four hours. Sadly, in trying to speed up the play for contemporary viewers, there is little breathing room left for the necessary emotional connection with the tragic events on stage.

    “Mourning Becomes Electra” is an adaptation of the Greek myth Orestes set in a small New England town at the close of the Civil War. A few days before General Ezra Mannon (Mark Blum) triumphantly returns from battle, his daughter, Lavinia (Jena Malone) discovers that her mother, Christine (Lili Taylor), is having an adulterous affair with Adam Brant (Anson Mount), a clipper captain who wants to get revenge on the Mannon family because his mother was abandoned by Ezra’s brother. When Ezra returns ready to make amends with Christine after years of unhappy marriage, Christine decides that she would rather escape her past and run away with Brant. Lavinia, of course, has other plans and entreaties her shell-shocked brother Orin (Joseph Cross) to help her bring justice against Christine.

    There’s no shortage of plot, and, given the fact that this “play” is actually a trilogy of three full-length plays, the time can add up. Ironically, the experience of feeling time passing too slowly happens in this production not because the tempo is too slow, but because it is entirely too fast. Since the show races through lines at lightening speed, the actors have little time between their rapid-fire back and forth to find the logic of a line which makes it work.

    This is especially true of an early scene in the first part, The Homecoming, after Lavinia has learned of Brant’s true intentions, where Brant continues to operate under the guise of seducing her. This scene should be wrought with the kind of tension brought about in dramatic irony where the audience knows something that a character doesn’t. The audience should feel the excitement of holding a secret and watching it reveled. Yet, there is little tension in this scene. Instead, lines are given quickly and flatly at the same emotional level, so the conflict does not rise but remains listless throughout.

    Despite the off-kilter tempo, there are a few moments where truly dramatic sparks fly. Lavinia, played by Ms. Malone, in her best moments shows the kind of bold determination for justice that becomes her. It is in one of these rare, bright moments, in the second confrontation with her mother, Christine, played by a far too-young Ms. Taylor, where they slow down, and discover the real tension in the dialogue, waiting to be exploited.

    Another moment in the play that was more satisfying than not is in the strange scene between Brant and The Chantyman (John Wojda), where the O’Neill’s haunting use of repeated thematic songs builds an eerie kind of suspense.

    Also haunting is the excellent original music by Pat Methany, which erratically weaves its way in and out of the story in unexpected moments. The stage, mostly a set piece at the Mannon estate, evokes the haunting nature of the Mannon legacy, especially as the play enters its second half and the ghostly images of former Mannons appear as illuminated portraits.

    These bright spots are rare. It is as if the show’s artistic management doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to sit through the entire trilogy. Instead of relying on a viewer’s innate desire to know what a character is feeling, they have chosen simply to get all the way through in as little time as possible. The result is similar to watching a favorite DVD on fast-forward: you are reminded of parts that are good, and you fill in the story as it goes, but you have little connection to the events happening, and that’s not how anyone wants to spend four hours.

    Where to see it:

    M”ourning Becomes Electra: A Trilogy” plays at The New Group @ Theatre Row (The Acorn Theatre / 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th ‘ 10th Avenue) as follows: Monday – Saturday at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday at 12:00 p.m. (matinee). NOTE: Beginning Mar. 1, the show plays as follows: Tuesday – Saturday at 7:00 p.m., Saturday at 12:00 p.m. (matinee) and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. (matinee).

    Tickets may be arranged through Ticket Central at www.ticketcentral.com or (212) 279-4200, or at the Theatre Row Box Office (12:00-8:00 PM daily). Tickets are $61.25. Call for student pricing and rush. For more information, visit www.thenewgroup.org.

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