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A CurtainUp Review
Strange Interlude

Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!
— Nina Leeds in Act Nine of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize drama Strange Interlude
David Greenspan
David Greenspan (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Eugene O'Neill rescued American theater from the excesses of 19th century melodrama with plays such as Beyond the Horizon and Desire Under the Elms. Writing Strange Interlude for the 1927-28 theater season, he decided to tap into his characters' mental experiences — or "stream of consciousness" — as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were doing in the modernist novel. To achieve that goal, O'Neill created monologues that convey what's going on under the surface.

The time-consuming asides of Strange Interlude periodically bring the play's dramatic action to a halt while the actors voice their characters' secret maunderings. The action resumes, of course, but only to stop again soon for another inner monologue.

The Transport Group is advertising its production of Strange Interlude as a "radical revival." Resourcefully directed by Jack Cummings III, this presentation takes the un-radical tack of using O'Neill's text without any cuts. What's out of the ordinary though is that a single actor, David Greenspan, performs all eight roles (and all 180 pages of O'Neill's lines and speeches). The result is a feat without recent, if any, precedent in New York theater.

Strange Interlude concerns a coterie of educated New Englanders whom Gertrude Stein might have classified, along with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as a "lost generation." Having reached maturity between 1912 and 1917, the members of this clique are navigating a world transformed by the brutality, loss, and disappointment of the so-called Great War.

At the group's center is Nina Leeds, a professor's daughter — neurotic, flighty, and captivating to men. At the start of the play, Nina is suffering from depression and debilitating anxiety. She's grieving for her fiancé Gordon, killed in combat; and she's consumed by regret that, due to paternal pressure and what she now views as puritanical mores, she neither married her war-bound love nor slept with him.

Strange Interlude follows Nina and three men entangled with her through a quarter century of hard living and high anxiety. Charles Marsden is Nina's friend from childhood, too much like a brother to appeal to her as a lover. Ned Darrell is Gordon's friend, attracted to Nina but focused on professional ambition rather than romance. And Sam Evans is the man Nina marries in the hope that family life may be a miracle cure for her unhappiness. The story includes things that were shocking to playgoers of O'Neill's day (adultery, abortion, and hereditary insanity), but don't raise an eyebrow now.

Dressed in three-piece suit with watch chain, crisp white shirt, and darkly conservative necktie, Greenspan looks like a banker from a John Marquand story. As he channels O'Neill's eight characters and carries on uncannily convincing conversations among two to four of them at a time, his costume turns out to be inconsequential. The things that draw and hold one's attention are Greenspan's facial expressions, which change as though by magic, and his remarkably flexible voice, with its variety of tonal colors.

With voice, facial expression, and posture in constant flux, Greenspan moves along a continuum from effeminacy to the utterly macho. His interpretations seem, at first, more caricature than characterization; but that's because, at the beginning of the play, he's transforming himself with furious speed to establish the various characters and keep the action moving.

As the performance proceeds and Greenspan tackles O'Neill's monologues, the individual dramatis personae take on impressive intricacy and the actor is able to make a change from one character to another subtly and with less appearance of effort. What's more, with only one performer on stage, the action in this version of Strange Interlude is seamless, with no disconnect between the regular dialogue and the inner monologues and no sense of the pace being stop-and-go.

Greenspan's great achievement is Nina. This portrait is not only credible and complex but, surprisingly enough, appealing. The actor and director Cummings have imbued Nina with sufficient charm to balance her shortcomings and explain why she's the sun around which the men revolve. But charm isn't warmth and Nina, who sometimes seems like an unfunny Becky Sharp, is a cold heroine to sustain almost six hours of drama. At moments, Nina's changeability and raucous anxiety cross the boundary of camp; but that's due more to O'Neill's writing than Greenspan's interpretation. (O'Neill lowered the temperature on melodrama in his groundbreaking early plays, but he didn't eliminate it from his dramatic toolkit.)

As though to compensate for the one-actor cast (or to banish the misapprehension that this is a staged reading), the Transport Group has given this Strange Interlude a production that's almost lavish. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey has constructed an enormous box inside Brooklyn's Irondale Center, a vast space, formerly for worship and religious-education, in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. The box contains two small auditoriums, each with a seating capacity of 50. For the first seven of O'Neill's nine acts, the audience shifts back and forth from those two little theaters.

Laffrey's sets for the first seven acts, complemented by Jen Schriever's atmospheric lighting, are as claustrophobic as O'Neill's plot. For the last two acts of the play, set on a yacht and a terrace, the performance moves to the roof of the box. The minimal design for these outdoor scenes relies on the very high ceiling of the Irondale Center for a sense of airiness and freedom that accords with the reconciliatory tone of the play's conclusion.

Strange Interlude was O'Neill's most popular play during his life. The script's Freudian asides and the marathon running time have proved stumbling blocks for later audiences, more restless and action-oriented than those of O'Neill's day. But Greenspan, with his knack for integrating the inner monologues and the rest of the play, may have found the secret for making O'Neill's exercise in Freudian excess palatable to playgoers other than O'Neill aficionados. A feat indeed.

Editor's Note: For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, check out our O'Neill chapter in our Playwright's Album.

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Strange Interlude by Eugene O'Neill
Director: Jack Cummings III
Cast: David Greenspan (Charles Marsden, Professor Henry Leeds, Nina Leeds, Edmund Darrell, Sam Evans, Mrs. Amos Evans, Gordon Evans, Madeline Arnold)
Scenic & Costume Designer: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever
Dramaturgy: Kristina Corcoran Williams
Production Manager: Gary Levinson
Technical Director: Joel Howell
Production Stage Manager: Ben Andersen
Running Time: Six hours with two intermissions and a dinner break
Presented by Transport Group Theatre Company
Irondale Theater Center, 85 S. Oxford Street, Brooklyn

From 10/06/17; opened 10/21/17; closing 11/18/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at October 18th press performance

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