In her small, post-World War I New England town Nina Leeds (David Greenspan) is unable to tear herself from memories of fallen fiancé Gordon Shaw. So as her father, Professor Henry Leeds (David Greenspan), sternly looks on, the headstrong young woman is romantically unavailable to Charles Marsden (David Greenspan).
Only after a few years pass does she succumb to marrying Sam Evans (David Greenspan) while actually devoting her secret love to Edmund “Ned” Darrell (David Greenspan). Later, she’s conflicted about revealing to Sam that son Gordon Evans (David Greenspan) is Ned’s son, not Sam’s.
That’s right, readers, you’ve twigged to the fact that in Jack Cummings III’s revival of Strange Interlude, at Brooklyn’s Irondale Theater Center, the six-hour play has been rendered even stranger. In this latest, but hardly traditional backward glance at Eugene O’Neill’s curious work, David Greenspan, one of New York City’s absolutely busiest actor-playwrights, is playing every part—and that also includes young Gordon, Sam’s mother Mrs. Amos Evans and older Gordon’s betrothed, Madeline.
Reaching for a word to describe this approach to the nine-act offering with tow 10-minute intermissions and one 30-minute dinner break, a reviewer might land on “stunt.” It is that, of course, but it’s much more than that. It’s an utterly remarkable theatrical triumph.
It may also be unique, something immediately worth entering in the Guinness Book of World Records. Has anyone every memorized a play of this length and then actually presented it to paying customers. The feat is tantamount, for instance, to someone’s memorizing the entire Hamlet text and then reciting it twice before a final fade-out.
The gobsmacking thing is that Greenspan—attempting something so demanding after a career of meeting numerous other challenges—is mesmerizing at it. There he is, dressed in a dignified three-piece, white shirt and tie, carrying on three-, four-, five-way conversations with himself and leaving no doubt in patrons’ thoughts about who is speaking. Okay, occasionally he does leave a momentary doubt, but only occasionally.
His basic technique is adapting a distinctive voice and one or two physical attributes for each figure—Ned, for instance, usually has his hand in his pockets—and quickly switching from one to the next as dialogue unfolds. Over that, he lays believable emotional responses to whatever the situations are. Hardly ever ceasing from covering the entire set and often speaking rapidly but never unintelligibly, he’s a thespian whiz.
And this continues as the audience is herded from one room to an adjoining second and back to the first (after Dane Laffrey’s sets have been changed) and finally to an Irondale mezzanine area for the final two acts.
To what purpose ultimately, you might ask? Firstly, to show that it can be done and to a memorable turn. Secondly and curiously with Strange Interlude, it can even improve one of O’Neill’s troublesome conceits for the work that opened on Broadway January 30, 1928 with Lynn Fontanne in the lead. (Others, among them Katherine Cornell, had turned the role.)
Those who know Strange Interlude know that it’s heavily salted with asides. Oh yes, throughout the characters speak their thoughts, as in traditional presentations the other actors freeze. (Stop-action was the decision reached by original director Philip Moeller.)
The beauty part here is that while soloist Greenspan is giving out with whomever’s aside, no one else has to stand or sit suspended and no observer has to feel sorry for those uncomfortably holding poses.
There are, however, other Strange Interlude pitfalls. Almost chief among them is Nina. Depressed and headstrong from the beginning, she remains an alienating presence as she grows older. (The last sequences take place in 1944 when World War II was raging, something O’Neill didn’t foresee in 1928.)
Constitutionally unable to be happy for any extended time with either businessman Sam, physician Ned or novelist Charles as they cavort or circle or moon around, Nina ultimately elicits little sympathy—and no empathy—from onlookers. She’s nothing much more than a self-indulgent rich girl.
More significantly, though, is that while Nina dangles the men and eventually tries to break up young Gordon’s alliance with Madeline, she turns herself into the focal person in a nine-act soap opera—“I can give myself without repulsion,” she signs at one dramatic moment. At another and after recalling her possibly ending tribulations, she declares, “I can’t feel guilty.” (With that statement, she foreshadows that contemporary willful debutante Donald Trump.)
Indeed, Strange Interlude all but anticipates the growing popularity of the actual soap operas that proliferated on the radio in the 1930s. (Did O’Neill ever feel pride at what he’d wrought?)
Perhaps the keenest commentary on that disappointing soap aspect is contained in O’Neill, the definitive Arthur and Barbara Gelb biography. Noting that O’Neill spent much of 1926 and 1927 composing the opus, laboring over it, they say of what he called his “woman play”:
“The trouble was that a good deal of what the characters had to say was mundane and did not lay open any of the profound soul’s secrets O’Neill imagined they did. The play’s principle character, Nina Leeds, though weighted by O’Neill with heavy symbolism, is in some ways the classic soap opera heroine.”
There it is in a nutshell, and amen.
Had Greenspan chosen to memorize two weeks of All My Children, and repeat that compilation, he could have achieved the same end. But achieve something unparalleled he has—with Cummings’s cunning collaboration. We’re not likely to see anything resembling it again.