Are we there yet?

In print advertisements for its current production, Dallas Theater Center declares Eugene O'Neill's 1940 Long Day's Journey Into Night to be America's greatest play. Leaving aside the strained hyperbole of calling any piece of art the greatest in its field, there are certainly other contenders for this specious honor, from Tennessee Williams' more compact, more daring The Glass Menagerie (written five years later) to O'Neill's own The Iceman Cometh (which immediately followed Long Day's Journey), still among the most lyrical, profound stage depictions of disappointed American lives.

Undeniably, Long Day's Journey Into Night has enjoyed, over the last six decades, a lofty place in the pantheon of American family sagas. Yet you could argue that this has less to do with the play's merits than with the sheer autobiographical nakedness of its story about an artistic family that slowly, painfully unravels on the day the youngest son is diagnosed with consumption (that's tuberculosis to you, HMO peon). O'Neill had already snatched one Pulitzer Prize and was on his way toward the Nobel when this only slightly revised theatrical version of his own tortured clan was put to paper. His chronic suffering from respiratory ailments, his struggles with depression, and his intermittent bouts with the bottle were already legend. Finally, toward the end of his career, O'Neill had replaced the ersatz with the echt, unfurling his Irish Catholic family's tattered crest as if to say, "This is the real sorrow I'd been heavily veiling in all my previous plays."

O'Neill's posthumous reputation (he died in 1953) has been challenged by some critics, who've correctly pointed out that as he grew older, his scripts became more longwinded, less focused, more extravagantly self-indulgent. When O'Neill confronted his private demons on the stage, the encounter had all the bluster and, at his worst, garishness of a pro wrestling match. The fact that he was into marathon expansions of simple themes--Strange Interlude, his experimental study of one woman plundering the lives of practically every man around her, was nine acts long--hasn't defused the charge that O'Neill painted billboard-sized pictures using repeated brushes of the same gray shade. Unlike, say, Tennessee Williams, whose gift quietly died in the company of booze and prescription pills, O'Neill's self-destruction played out in the sheer volume of his words. He stopped caring that he was trapped in a cycle of repeat, ramble, repeat, ramble. And his reputation was so towering at the end of his life, few contemporaries had the balls to point this out.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is hardly O'Neill's most repetitious play. There are too many lovely rose gardens that sprout in this bleak winter field of family denial, regret, and disappointment, too many scorching moments of recognition for anyone who's been trapped in the love-hate mythology of a family, to declare that the playwright is running in circles. And the current Dallas Theater Center production, led by artistic director Richard Hamburger, is smartly paced enough to cultivate those beautiful patches when they come along. Hamburger made the decision to stage inside the cavernous Arts District Theater what was written as a claustrophobic family melodrama that unfolds in the small rooms of a summerhouse. No doors, no walls, nowhere for the characters to hide from the unpleasant truths of their lives: Momma (Barbara Tarbuck) is a bitter morphine addict who's traveled more like a suitcase than like a wife alongside her husband's career as a stage actor. Poppa (Michael Kevin) is a narcissistic thespian miser who pinches pennies even when selecting his son's sanatorium; big brother (Kurt Ziskie) is a mooching alcoholic currently failing in his tepid attempts at acting; and baby brother (Mark Dold) is a sensitive pawn in all their maneuverings who may be dying. As an Irish Catholic friend who attended the show with me pointed out, every Irish stereotype fires on all pistons here--alcoholism, tempers that flare up inexplicably, internal conflicts over lapsed Catholicism, and a general reputation of untrustworthiness, especially where money is concerned.

The actors smoothly play to the back rows, circling the stage and bellowing their laughter and agony to the top of the Arts District Theater. Oddly enough, this earnest projection of raw melodrama doesn't come across as exaggerated, but trivial, self-canceling. Sitting so far away, watching this family disintegrate on a near-bare stage, their plight feels like generic dysfunction. Listening to O'Neill's poetic language of resentment in the enormous Arts District Theater is a little like reading poetry under a microscope: The words are the same, but you're aware of how removed you are from their expression. Staging this intense play in a small theater might make you feel like a member of this flock with clipped wings, if the direction was precise and discerning enough and the performances properly restrained. But witnessing their fears and resentments arena-style, you feel more like an invited guest at a party whose hosts are ungraciously indiscreet.

And did I mention that this DTC production feels like it starts in the morning and ends late at night? This is not an admiring comment on the show's verisimilitude, but an expression of how much my butt hurt by the time the actors took their bows. Honoring a great work by a seminal playwright is one thing; preserving his notorious excesses in blind reverence is quite another. I suppose we should be grateful that DTC's Long Day's Journey Into Night only takes up three hours; Richard Hamburger could have chosen to stage O'Neill's More Stately Mansions, which was written to last 10. Although some would consider this theatrical heresy, I contend Hamburger could have consolidated the great passages in this play if he had cut 30 or 45 more minutes off this version, which has itself been pared down by more than an hour. Shaving off more of the repetitious sentiments and bits of the confessional monologues would give this highly personal tragedy more impact in such a gigantic venue. (Houston's Alley Theatre is currently staging the full-length Long Day's Journey, but in a reportedly intimate venue.) As it plays now, the DTC's Long Day's Journey Into Night is professionally executed self-pity in a petri dish; you never get close enough to the performers to feel like more than a clinical observer.

Long Day's Journey Into Night runs through March 22. Call (214) 522-