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You’ve seen Robert Hogan a million times. He’s one of those New York character actors that television recycles into life-wallpaper—so when he pops up on Hill Street Blues or General Hospital or Law & Order every other week, you say: “Yeah, that guy. Who is that guy?”

Well, that guy steals the show in Arena Stage’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. Not that you’d recognize Hogan here: As Phil, the sweaty, crusty, pig-farming father of Moon’s heroine, Josie, he looks like an exhumed John Brown. But when he’s onstage, the play flies.

Moon is the younger brother—in a couple of ways—of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Both plays feature the character of Jim Tyrone Jr. (played here by Tuck Milligan), an actor who in the 1943 Moon has embraced the alcoholism he was struggling with in the 1940 Long Day’s Journey. And O’Neill based Jim on his brother Jamie, who fell apart after their mother died and with whom O’Neill broke off contact.

In fact, the centerpiece of the play is a long second-act scene in which Josie (Janice Duclos) channels Jim’s mother, forgiving his life of drinking and womanizing as he chastely falls asleep on her chest. Writing more than 20 years after Jamie’s death, the playwright intended Moon to be a redemptive prayer for the brother he couldn’t absolve in life.

Shot through with forgotten slang and dated emotional modes we now patronize, the play has lost considerable power over the years. Its melodramatic, easy-to-guess plot can also make you impatient. But at its best, it still boasts some of life’s basic pleasures—beautiful insults, and hellacious arguments, and the artful, shameless manipulation of others, especially loved ones. And above all, irony, the currency of the dispossessed.

Irony might be the only thing the Irish-American Hogans (yes, the actor has the same surname as his character) have in abundance on their 1923 Connecticut tenant farm. Certainly, the pigs aren’t panning out—Phil’s behind in the rent, and his pious son Mike (David Fendig) has just run away, like his two brothers before him.

“I never liked him,” spits Phil when he finds out. “I never liked any of ’em. They spent so much time confessin’ their sin, they had no time for sinnin’.” He’s left with Josie, and despite the fact that they take turns swinging a big stick at each other, they like it that way. She’s slept with most of the town’s men, and he’s insulted all of them. They’re disgraces, and they’re proud of it. With their fierce, 19th-century faces and fading accents, they’re the end of an Old Country line of rapscallions.

Jim, who’s their landlord, has always been sweet on Josie. (The feeling’s mutual.) And he’s about to come into a sizable inheritance, and he’s had an offer to sell the farm out from under Phil. So the Hogans play the only card they have: They plot to get Jim blotto, have Josie seduce him, and then surprise him at dawn with “witnesses and a shotgun” to blackmail him into marrying her.

But Jim doesn’t have any intention of selling the farm—he just loves to tweak the Hogans. When he drops by in a cream-colored suit to ask Josie out, the air gets thick with schemes and passes and zingers about how bad poverty smells. And physical hijinks worthy of Buster Keaton, such as when Phil and Josie clamber all over Kate Edmunds’ slate-gray set to mess with the twitty mind of their filthy-rich neighbor T. Stedman Harder (played amusingly and, amusingly, by J. Fred Shiffman). As Phil is helpfully telling Jim how experienced his daughter is and how wonderful her breasts are, you realize that the first act of Moon has given you a genuine comic high.

And Robert Hogan provides the boost. An actor’s actor, he’s so immediate that you never see any artifice. His Phil is slothful, raffish, stoic, defiant—just in how he peels down to his skivvies for a bath. (The great costumes, by Rosemary Pardee, have only the barest breath of color, as if you were looking at a sepia-toned silent film.) Hogan has tremendous body control—conveying character in the way his drunken steps fight the stairs and the way he scratches his butt against those stairs by thrusting his pelvis at Josie (as he’s telling her to be extra nice to Jim on their date). Yet it might be his voice that’s his best quality. Perfectly cadenced, sliding from baritone to falsetto, it turns ordinary terms such as “whore” (pronounced “har,” apparently) into harshly beautiful music. It’s a perfect performance.

But once the second act begins and Phil has been shooed away to let Josie and Jim be alone, Moon turns into Planet of the Long Speeches. Humor is out; the bitter fatalism of film noir is in. The two would-be lovers eventually have their moment—but first they have to strip about a dozen varnish coats of hypocrisy off each other.

And the more hard liquor Josie pours down Jim’s throat, the more fleeting his kisses get. What’s eating him? Incredibly, he didn’t come over to get over at all: As tortured as one of Eric Rohmer’s male leads, he seeks ideal love but finds only cheap sex. He even insists that Josie must be a virgin! So she has to stifle her own desires (and the plan) and settle for being Jim’s pillow under the too-much-remarked-upon moon.

Clearly, O’Neill took the Madonna/whore complex seriously. The scene is a cry from another era, when a man could make his mother the great love of his life without embarrassment. Contemporary audiences have trouble relating to it, even with the most accomplished players on hand. And Milligan makes the mistake of overcooking his hard-boiled Jim. The character sounds as if he had stepped out of Double Indemnity—whole sticks of butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He’s mannered, too—and doesn’t mesh with Duclos’ wistful Josie, who has her poignant moments but also fails to hold your attention as someone who is onstage nearly the entire two-and-three-quarters hours needs to. Duclos should be commended for avoiding a cliched, brassy Josie. But her performance at this point hasn’t really settled on another idea, and it looks uncertain as a result.

The disparity between Hogan’s effect and that of the others makes one wonder about the hand of director Molly Smith in all this. At least the physical comedy is superb. When Jim finally leaves, at dawn, Smith has Josie and Phil defiantly face the audience with arms crossed—of course, they were the real couple all along.

And then Phil insists she cook his breakfast. Do all men need mothering? Where’s the place for a woman’s desire? Hyperfeminists will have ground their teeth to the roots by the time Moon has set. The rest of us, grateful for Robert Hogan, will settle for being in the company of one very good man. CP