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Theatre in Review: Strange Interlude (Transport Group/Irondale Center)

David Greenspan. Photo Carol Rosegg

One hardly expects to see a full-blown revival of Strange Interlude these days -- its last major New York revival, in 1985, was no barn-burner, even with Glenda Jackson, Brian Cox, and Edward Petherbridge in the leads -- but one has certainly never imagined anything like Jack Cummings III's production, in which all eight roles of Eugene O'Neill's marathon family saga are played by a single performer -- in this case, David Greenspan. The actor and director did something similar -- with surprisingly delightful results -- with The Patsy, a charming, if potboiling, domestic comedy from the 1925-26 season; Strange Interlude is another matter altogether, and not just because it runs nearly six hours, including two intermissions and a dinner break. One of the better-remembered efforts from O'Neill's experimental period, it offers soap opera on a grand scale, a psychological drama with a bad case of elephantiasis. Even in its day, it wasn't universally acclaimed: Alfred Lunt, whose wife, Lynn Fontanne, starred in the original production, cattily dismissed it as "a six-day bisexual race."

Lunt had a point: One of the silliest works ever to emerge from the pen of a great playwright, Strange Interlude features, line for line, more handwringing about sex than all the Broadway plays of 1928 put together. The heroine, Nina Leeds, is a world-class neurotic around whom men are so many moths to the flame. (One wonders if O'Neill was a fan of the films of Theda Bara, the original vamp; it would explain the ease with which Nina unmans any male who has the bad luck to cross her path.) It's 1919, and she is a bundle of nerves, bitterly regretting that she refused to marry (or, as a concession, even bed) Gordon, the love of her life, before he went off to war, never to return. Desperate for something to do, she becomes a nurse at a hospital for returning veterans, alleviating her guilt by providing services that go well beyond taking temperatures and plumping pillows, if you know what I mean. Appalled at this untidy spectacle, Ned Darrell, the head doctor -- who has an eye for Nina himself -- counsels her to marry Sam Evans, one of the patients (and, not incidentally, one of Gordon's former classmates). Sam, who has little to offer besides a big smile and an Arrow collar -- his dream is to make it in advertising -- is hardly a good match for the brooding, twisted Nina. Still, driven by the same masochism that had her sleeping with half the men's ward, she decides to wed Sam and bear his child.

That dream is murdered in its cradle when Sam takes Nina to visit his mother. Mrs. Evans -- who rarely, if ever, sees her son -- lives upstate, in a residence that, according to O'Neill's stage directions, makes the Addams Family mansion look like a semi-detached suburban villa; that her empty-headed go-getter offspring emerged from these dank surroundings is hard to credit. It starts to make sense when Mrs. Evans, taking Nina aside, tells her the truth: Aside from herself, virtually all of Sam's blood relatives have succumbed to insanity. (There's even a crazy aunt up in the attic.) Sam knows nothing of this; as soon as his father started showing the dreaded signs, the boy was dispatched to boarding school. Now, she warns Nina, Sam must not be allowed to father children. This is awkward, since Nina is already pregnant.

This pseudoscientific plot twist, the suggestion that Sam carries a lunacy gene, is tantamount to Dickens' use of spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, and it drives what happens next. A trip to the abortionist takes care of Nina's immediate problem, not incidentally giving her new reasons to loathe herself. And, taking Mrs. Evans' advice, she asks Ned -- who, after all, got her into this jam -- to help her create a child, which will be raised as Sam's. Ned agrees, igniting a passionate affair that will leave them tormented with guilt and misery for years to come.

And we're not even at the halfway point. Also circling Nina is Charles Marsden -- "Dear Old Charley," as Nina calls him, an appellation that stings -- an old maid of a man, a novelist who specializes in "long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups -- about dear old ladies and witty, cynical bachelors and quaint characters with dialects, and married folk who always love and respect each other, and lovers who avoid love in whispers." He'd like to have Nina for himself, although only in some weirdly spiritual way. (O'Neill may have been too priggish to make Charles a homosexual, instead having him confess to a fear of the physical, thanks to a traumatic brothel visit as a young man.) And, as time goes by, there's Ned and Nina's son, who grows up hating his mother, having guessed her infidelity. Of course, he is the spitting image of Gordon -- remember Gordon? We do, since nobody can stop talking about him -- and Nina, determined that no woman shall have the young man, whips up all sorts of lies to drive away his understandably confused fiancée.

For all its pretensions, Strange Interlude is basically an extra-large helping of melodrama, heavily sauced with Freudian theory and puffed up with lots of hot-air musings about Man, Woman, God, Fate, and other lighthearted subjects. Its most famous talking point involves the lengthy use of asides, during which the characters reveal their true feelings. Indeed, they talk to themselves almost as much as they address each other. O'Neill leaves no stone unturned, no thought unrevealed; the subtext is the text, a collection of annotations that ensure we don't miss a single dysfunction. The dialogue is top-heavy with Meaning. As Nina says, "Our lives are just a series of strange, dark interludes in the electric display of God the Father." And she's just making conversation!

Although he is associated with the downtown theatre scene, Greenspan is a technically gifted actor of the old school; one can imagine him touring with the Lunts or Katherine Cornell. (With his hawk nose; wavy, grey-tinged hair; and taste for grand gestures, he even resembles the kind of old-school gentleman of the theatre who used to turn up in prewar Hollywood films, playing fathers, bankers, bishops, and the like.) He doesn't so much play the text as attack it with all the energy and brio at his command -- and that's saying something. He creates eight distinct characters, although, at times, you might feel yourself a step behind, unclear as to exactly who is speaking. It's also difficult to keep track of who is and who isn't onstage at any given moment. Still, the production isn't that hard to follow and the sheer intensity that Greenspan brings to it holds one's attention for the entire running time.

Part of the fascination lies in how delicately Greenspan treads a middle path between lightly spoofing the often-turgid plot and playing it for the last drop of high-flown hysteria. It's as if he knows we're never going to buy either O'Neill's sermonizing or his refusal to allow his characters one moment of satisfaction, but he presents it anyway, with the subtlest of quotation marks attached. He is especially successful as Marsden, who hangs around for years, hating himself, yet eternally fascinated by Nina and her machinations. He also does well by Ned, who, for reasons that O'Neill never begins to justify, is so undone by his long-running fling with Nina that he gives up medicine and runs off to Bermuda to do biological research. His Nina, while reasonably effective, never begins to address Strange Interlude's biggest problem, its inability to explain Nina's spider-like fascination for the men caught in her web. (Even Marsden, who, aside from his mother, doesn't even like women, wants her for himself.) You'd think there weren't any other females available in Connecticut and New York City, where the play mostly unfolds. Perhaps Lynn Fontanne -- or Geraldine Page, who played the role in 1963 -- made Nina's allure more evident; Jackson certainly didn't. Greenspan's performance is a technical marvel -- to say nothing of being a stunning feat of memorization -- but it still leaves one faintly baffled at the woman at the center of the action.

Still, this is one of those eccentric theatrical ventures that will prove irresistible to fans of O'Neill as well as anyone curious about a play that, for all its fame, is rarely produced. (Apparently, Transport Group has had little difficulty attracting audiences to the production's extremely limited run.) Cummings has given this singular drama an equally one-of-a-kind staging. Set designer Dane Laffrey has built a sort of cabin structure in Irondale Center that contains two stages. The audience is led back and forth between them for seven of the play's nine acts -- they are redressed repeatedly, to suggest various locations -- ending up on the cabin's roof for the final two acts. The sets are abstract renderings of such locations as the study where Nina's father works, the Evans family homestead, and Nina and Sam's seaside bungalow, among others. It's a massive piece of work that is well-suited to the production. (Laffrey also dressed Greenspan in a period-looking three-piece suit.) Jen Scrhiever's lighting includes some attractive sunlight looks.

Overall, Greenspan and Cummings have played fair with O'Neill's gargantuan work; whether or not that was a wise choice is an open question. Greenspan certainly puts on a show, and it is fascinating to contemplate how O'Neill later took many of the play's components -- characters writhing with sexual guilt, a furiously troubled mother-son relationship, a houseful of men revolving around a controlling female -- and fashioned them into his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night. As for Strange Interlude, I would only add that, in 1932, MGM adapted it into a Norma Shearer film. (The script retains the asides, while whittling down the running time to a trim one hour and forty-nine minutes.) This, I feel, was redundant; at its heart, it was a Norma Shearer film all along. -- David Barbour

(9 November 2017)

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