Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, a nine-act drama full of illicit sex and stream-of-consciousness monologues, premiered on Broadway in 1928 to admiring, if scandalized, audiences. The play proved popular despite, or perhaps because of, its pearl-clutching references to female promiscuity, adultery, abortion, and mother-son psychosexual neuroses. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year and ran for over 400 performances, but because of its five-hour run time, the play could receive only six performances a week by its cast of nine.
Memorizing and performing a major role in any of O'Neill's longer plays is daunting; attempting to do so with nine roles in a single performance is mind-blowing. But David Greenspan has taken on that challenge — and brilliantly succeeded — in Transport Group's production of Strange Interlude at the Irondale Theatre Center in Brooklyn. This is the theatrical equivalent of an extreme sport, both for Greenspan and the audience, but those willing to brave the butt-busting experience will have bragging rights to what must be one of the most unforgettable acting tours de force in New York's theatrical history.
Surprisingly, this long play's plot is relatively straightforward. Nina Leeds, the daughter of a New England professor, is racked by guilt after her young lover, Gordon, is killed in World War I. She has several admirers who would happily take Gordon's place: the effete, sniffy novelist Charles Marsden, the science-minded biologist Edmund Darrell, and the dim but kindhearted striver Sam Evans. After failing to find solace in the beds of wounded soldiers, Nina decides to marry simple Sam and bear them a child in hopes of restoring some happiness to her life. Sam's mother warns her, however, that the family is predisposed to mental illness, so Nina terminates the pregnancy, takes Edmund as a lover, and bears his child, whom she names Gordon — all unbeknownst to Sam. As the years pass, Charles, the fourth member of this strange love quadrangle, continues to pine for Nina as he plots a way to win her heart.
Aside from its length, Strange Interlude presents special challenges for directors and actors. Characters often speak their thoughts in the middle of conversations with other characters. In the original production, the stage action "froze" while actors delivered interior monologues. Greenspan, dressed smartly in a three-piece suit (costume by Dane Laffrey), is able to do something remarkably similar all by himself. With a glance toward the audience or a lowering of the voice, he lets us know where speech ends and thought begins. It takes about 20 minutes to catch on to his techniques, but soon Greenspan's characters come into focus. With a broad sweep of his arm and a crease to his brow, he changes from Charles to Edmund. A hop and a fist-punch in the air and he's the young Evans. These transformations are remarkable acting feats in their own right.
Also remarkable is Greenspan's knack for subtly mining O'Neill's humor. The melodramatic story brims with sexual intrigues, Freudian neuroses, and lots of opportunities for scenery chewing. The play's occasionally soap-operatic language is not lost on Greenspan, who treats the material lovingly but knows when to let loose a campy flourish. Mama's boy Charles gives him ample opportunity to inject laughs into the angst-laden text, as when he speaks his thoughts about women in a disdainful New England accent: "My Nina!...cruel bitch!...I'll scream out the truth about every woman!...no kinder at heart than dollar tarts!" Then with a guilty glance to the audience, "Forgive me, Mother!...I didn't mean all!"
Cummings directs this masterful production on an ingenious set (also by Laffrey) which seamlessly guides the audience through numerous scene changes that indicate the passage of roughly 25 years. A large structure has been built in the middle of the Irondale's large stage space. It contains two self-enclosed theaters that the audience moves between until the final two scenes, which take place in a third location atop the structure. This not only helps break up the play into digestible portions, but also allows for some welcome leg-stretching. All told, the production has a six-hour running time, but two 10-minute intermissions and a 30-minute dinner break halfway through make the show mentally (and physically) manageable.
The intense, shared experience of watching Greenspan perform this enormous work in a single evening mirrors O'Neill's preoccupation with time and the ways people change and remain the same over the course of their lives. Upon leaving the theater, audience members realize they've witnessed a unique and remarkable theatrical event together, as though, through one man, they've seen inside the mind of O'Neill himself.
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