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Strange Interlude
The Neo-Futurists at the Goodman Theatre

Dean Evans
Great credit must be given to the Goodman for including in its recently concluded Eugene O'Neill festival an absolute skewering of a work that might be considered little more than a museum piece. Though not reflected in the festival's title, "A Global Exploration of Eugene O'Neill in the 21st Century," the series included only early works of the playwright, from a period in which he experimented with a range of styles before settling into the realistic dramas for which he's better known. First produced in 1928, Strange Interlude was experimental in its generous use of asides in which the characters reveal their thoughts directly to the audience, and in its length (this production took nearly five hours to perform the play's nine acts).

If O'Neill's introduction of Freudian and Jungian psychology into Strange Interlude was new to 1920s audiences, the melodramatic style of this piece must certainly have been more familiar and entertaining to them than to today's viewers. It concerns the lifelong attractions of three men to a woman with an unending grief and attachment for Gordon Shaw, a lover killed in WWI before their relationship could be consummated. The woman, Nina Leeds (Merrie Greenfield), finds in each of them an aspect of her perfect lover. Charles Marsden (Joe Dempsey), fifteen years Nina's senior and a literary man like her late father, is a father figure. She marries the insecure Sam Evans (Brennan Buhl) out of pity and maternal instinct, but after learning that insanity runs in the Evans family and believing any child of Sam's will develop mental illness, she secretly aborts the child she and Sam have conceived. She convinces another man (Ned Darrell, played by Jeremy Sher) to impregnate her and lets Sam believes the child is his own. Darrell becomes her on-again/off ┬ľagain lover, completing a triad of father, son and lover who still cannot compete with the lost, idealized Gordon Shaw. O'Neill's script is nearly unplayable in its lengthy, detailed descriptions of setting and character appearance—including physical transformations which could never be literally accomplished in short pauses between acts. In its length, wholly disproportionate to the ideas and entertainment value presented, it's nearly unwatchable for a modern audience.

The Goodman's solution? Bring in director Greg Allen and his Neo-Futurists, an experimental company whose long-running signature production Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is a collection of "30 plays in 60 minutes" that changes weekly. The pieces seem improvised, but are actually scripted in advance, though probably quite speedily. The idea of asking them to perform one play over nearly six hours isn't nearly as ironic as it seems. Their efficiency in generating ideas quickly made them an obvious choice to fill some five hours of stage time. They even switched among a variety of techniques to interpret this monster-sized piece as if it were four or five different productions. While the production had its slow spots, the company put together a laugh-out-piece for much its considerable stage time.

Allen's basic idea was to lampoon O'Neill's excessive wordiness. Initially, the company seemed intent on spoofing this diarrhea of the pen by performing every single word on the page. The lengthy descriptions of stage setting and character at the top of each act were read aloud as the performers assumed facial expression and postures to match them. Where O'Neill's was confusing or self-contradictory (as in the description of Marsden as having "an indefinable feminine quality about him, though it is nothing apparent in either appearance or act"), they sometimes broke character to seek clarification from the narrator. For a time they even read their characters' names at the beginning of each speech. Then, they shifted gears to show how unnecessary was O'Neill's glut of words. At points, only the dialogue (not the asides) was spoken. In another instance, Marsden silently paused for a time long enough to read his interior monologue, without actually reading it. For most of act five, the performers spoke only their stage directions, but in character as if it were dialogue. And in act six, the actors gave a serious table reading of only the interior monologues.

Performing this stage marathon was a cast of just five Olympic-caliber actors. Merely making it through some five hours of performing over six hours (the Saturday and Sunday performances had hour-long dinner breaks—the Friday night performance just three fifteen-minute intermissions) would be commendable enough. That they could keep the audience engaged throughout, laughing (hard) through much of it, sustain rich conceptions of their characters, and age them by twenty-five years was medal-worthy.

Joe Dempsey was the effete intellectual Marsden, summoning some of the great character actors of the 1930s screwball comedies in his portrayal of the haughty and huffy novelist who secretly pines for Nina over 25 years. As Sam Evans, the man Nina marries, Brennan Buhl was all earnest obliviousness. His was the most transparent of the characters and he created an insecure man who retains a man-boy quality even into his middle-aged years. The tough and in-control Dr. Ned Darrell was played with an aristocratic swagger by Jeremy Sher. Merrie Greenfield was the tormented Nina, the object of all their affections. She navigated a tricky role quite skillfully—giving a funny performance without going to the tragic extremes that might seem obvious options, and even bringing some sympathy to the manipulative, lying Nina. In all of the other roles (except for one, which I'll get to) was Dean Evans, whose limber, transformable body and voice played an elderly maid, Nina's father, her mother-in-law, and her son at ages 11 and 21. The final role—that of Madeline Arnold, Nina's soon-to-be daughter-in-law—was played by a doll and voiced by Dean Evans and Dempsey. It should be noted the doll and Evans performed the sort of puppet sex promised but not quite delivered by Avenue Q.

Production design was simple but effective, with a monster-sized portrait photo of the deceased Gordon Shaw in military dress uniform hovering over the proceedings. Supertitles announced settings and acts, and also highlighted some of O'Neill's lines—including those most poetic ("deafen the world with lies") and most opaque ("there are so many reasons we dare not think about for thinking "). Sets were just a few pieces of furniture (Allen was credited as set designer and Alice McGuire as Prop Designer), but the costumes by Margaret Morettini were 1920s chic, with the most impressive being Sam's collegiate wear and a fat suit under yachting wear for the scene in which he's in his 50s. Moody and mysterious lighting was provided by Rachel Damon and Josh Weckesser. Sound design, including pre-recorded inner thoughts of the characters, was by Nick Keenan.

There certainly must be O'Neill scholars with a higher opinion of Strange Interlude's literary merits than the one I expressed earlier. I may have to give it a more serious try sometime—maybe by checking out the TV version on DVD with Glenda Jackson. But it seems the play has inspired satire since Groucho Marx took his shots at it in Animal Crackers, and on through Mad Magazine's 1964 piece that combined Strange Interlude with the then hit TV series starring Shirley Booth, "Hazel." The Neo-Futurists' Strange Interlude followed in that rich tradition and a little bird tells me Groucho would have loved it.

Strange Interlude was performed in the Goodman's Owen Theatre on March 6, 7 and 8, 2009.

Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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