Tuesday, February 4, 2014

O'Neill's Strange Interlude - Review by Tim Dugan

Used with Permission
STRANGE INTERLUDE by Eugene O’Neill; National Theatre/Lyttelton[i]; Southbank, London; July 2013, closed September 1, 2013; directed by Simon Godwin.

Strange Interlude is an implausible play that somehow manages to reach believability by its final tableau. The convoluted story of a mother-in-law haranguing her pregnant daughter-in-law (protagonist, Nina Leeds) to abort her baby in order to impede the hereditary madness in her family ascendency, and, following that abortion, be impregnated by a clandestine surrogate—with the upshot of weaving a new life with her unwitting puerile husband and their out-of-marriage baby, seems so far beyond any believable consideration as “story” that for the first hour or so the event at the National Theater (NT) has no real basis in reality. Then the controlled, heavy-handed dramaturgical engineering of Eugene O’Neill starts to disengage and the play—the Pulitzer prize-winning play—alights. Across this redacted production on the Lyttelton Theater’s neo-Greek-proscenium stage, the play finds a creaking momentum that teases out the particularly craven aspects of the drama including promiscuity and nymphomania, celibacy, paternity, illegitimacy, and congenital family insanity, among a few other O’Neill standards. Eventually the Interlude “plot” delivers steady, unremitting levels of shock and awe, genuinely lyrical romance, and cleverness and jocularity; there’s even uproarious hilarity in this forbiddingly gothic drama. Beyond the slightly clumsy effects of quotidian dramatic exposition at the onset of the play, the story ultimately reveals itself as a “noir” tragicomedy of power if somewhat unwieldy proportion. Strange Interlude is a mammoth 5 hour, 9-act play, boxed and compressed by director Simon Godwin to 3 hours and 20 minutes at the Lyttelton; but regardless of the show’s abridged length, the information load is onerous.

As we learn of the tragic death of Nina’s heartthrob, Gordon, a “doughboy”[ii] in the trenches of World War I (Anne-Marie Duff as Nina) and her ensuing sexual proclivities with a slew of wounded-warrior lovers, the coil around this confused Yankee girl’s heart begins to tighten. In her enduring grieving for her dead, but eternally lingering fiancé (a spiritual doppelganger of sorts) Nina’s emotional state deteriorates to what is amateurishly diagnosed by her father as clinically-defined anti-social levels. Nina, fundamentally, has the debilitating symptoms of classic, heart-broken, disconsolate youth: she’s neighbor hostile, belligerent, loud, weepy, and on certain occasions at her infirmary work-site, sexually explicit and even predatory; and sadly, her well-meaning, but somewhat conniving bookish father (Patrick Drury as Prof. Henry Leeds) plans for her rehabilitation with the honest, but equally unfulfilled and sexually inhibited suitor, Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards). Slowly, weirdly, the nexus of pious academic father, the dutiful suitor, Marsden, and (eventually) a slightly sinister, but incongruously funny family physician, Dr. Edmund “Ned” Darrell (Darren Pettie) bring meaning and reparation to the wobbly and spiritually mangled Nina. And collaterally, with the successful execution of Nina’s fetal-switching ruse, her doltish, toe-headed, piddling future husband “Sam (Jason Watkins) is snared from crippling insanity and spiritual calamity as well. As always, O’Neill’s persistent leitmotifs of awesome but verboten sex, underground abortion, medical ethics, and psychologically violent parental bullying vanish and resurface throughout the play until the exhaustive drama is spun-out over the three decade period between, and immediately after, the World Wars. Now, ironically, the euphonious title, Strange Interlude, has two connotations: the tumultuous years between the Armistice and Pearl Harbor; and the inner-voices that conjoin characters and audience in O’Neill’s sluggish, but eventually transcendent play.

Strange Interlude, as revived at The NT, and cautiously, painstakingly directed by Simon Godwin, is a fulsome event that takes us from a leathery office-study in the Leeds family’s upscale college-town home to a depressing New England summer house (with a deranged, Jane Eyre-type relative squirreled away in the attic) and, eventually, to an elegant pre-war Park Avenue apartment replete with nouveau fixtures, pristine accoutrements, a fascinating, if scene-stealing translucent tubular staircase, and Nina and Ned’s toy-smashing, pre-pubescent,  biologically engineered child.

Fortuitously, the emotionally healthy “kid” is named after Nina’s deceased boyfriend and preternatural countenance—“Gordon.” The symbolism of a new and resurrected Gordon is a tad obvious, but O’Neill, an inelegant poet at times, would have it no other way—Gordon is now amongst the living. The intermittent scenes of Strange Interlude are set on the aft’ deck of a sea-worthy cruiser where family and friends drink, fight, shriek and rally at the finish line of the now grown-up Gordon’s prep-school regatta, and (lastly) Sam’s post-funeral gathering at a harbor terrace that calls to mind the final wrenching tableau of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. I was mystified by the ethereal mood and location of this final scene so I returned to the Interlude text for clarification. In his Act 9 stage notes O’Neill identifies the location of this scene as “a terrace on the Evans’ estate on Long Island,” and further: “In the rear the terrace overlooks a small harbor with the ocean beyond”.[iii] This design choice probably had tremendous significance for O’Neill in his inception of the final tableau, but I can only respond to what I see on the stage, not (necessarily) what the author directs me to see. For me, the locus—the “feeling”—of this quixotic long-goodbye scene is a small, private airfield or dockland—a hidden highway, so to speak, for the mobile rich. I had no sense that the “terrace” was proprietary and felt that it was much too airy and commodious for what O’Neill defines as a “pretentious villa”. Ultimately, the final frenetic scene involving Nina, Ned, Charlie, Gordon and Madeline (Gordon’s girlfriend) is quite rousing, but with an aftershock: Gordon (now a “sun bronzed” and “extremely handsome ‘collegian’,”  “with the figure of a trained athlete”) bitch-slaps the cuckolding Ned for his lifetime of boorish behavior and exits from his life—forever. Effectively, with the dissolution of Gordon and Ned’s detestable and suspicious bastard/father relationship, Nina’s gnawing paternal secret is buried forever. Now, with her husband committed to the grave, her cloying boyfriend beyond Gordon’s reach, and her sexless life with Charlie imminent, Nina is free to kick back and enjoy the empty moment. Ms. Duff’s rendering of this pitiably restored Nina is credible and quite compelling. And design quandary aside, Eugene O’Neill was (and remains) the seminal modern-American set designer.

Strange Interlude is somewhat of a Jungian theatrical experiment. Embedded in the action are innumerable stream-of-conscious asides that comment-on, paraphrase or interrogate the motives, needs and passions of the relevant characters. These “inner-moments” are the context of the play’s mellifluous title and are proffered as secretive interpersonal consultations that allow the characters to continually second guess one-another as well as update the audience. Occasionally they’re delivered in various circumstances as afterthoughts, epiphanies and mini-soliloquies. At the time of the original 1928 production these “asides” probably seemed au currant or even daring, but now, in an electronic storytelling era, are graceless narrative devices. As a separate dramatic formula the asides are funny, dream-like, informative and even gossipy; and in certain places they offer the performers a ballsy panache—a kind of impulsive directorial authority that allows them to step out of the O’Neill box and pontificate on a given or developing situation. And weirdly, with certain asides, it seems as if a given performer just decided on impulse to stop the play and recite O’Neill’s stage directions or rehash the play’s subtext. Sporadically, the Strange Interlude performers seem secure and self-possessed with O’Neill’s method of paraphrasing and commenting on-the-fly, but overall, they’re never completely relaxed or in charge of the moments; and the audience isn’t always sure if the asides are intrapersonal or reciprocal. The plays “asides,” as textual commentary, are showstoppers—curious persisting showstoppers, but not enormously vital to the moment or the event; and as an adjunct to an already hulking stage play, O’Neill’s “interludes” become formulaic and redundant.

The sets by Soutra Gilmore are spot-on to the time and circumstance of each new scene and decade, and the costumes are impeccably chosen right down to the laughable argyle socks of the cuckolded husband, Sam, and the nifty leather grenadier jacket of the duplicitous, but again, eminently funny Dr. Edmund Darrell. Every care has been taken by The NT design team to find historical authenticity in the production values and the effort has paid-off in visually coherent ideas. Even the arching stern of the cruiser in the very shrill regatta scene is credible in both design and purpose; as such, we believe that the characters at some point actually inhabit the boat rather than just “act” on it; and with the exception of an over-orchestrated transition scene near the end of the production, the mood, atmosphere and setting of Strange Interlude is enhanced by drifting melodies, odd sonic effects, gothic lighting and a turn-table installation for quantum scene changes. And as striking and choreographed as the awesome set changes are, it’s never a high-tech show. As a matter of fact, considering the reach of the play’s geography (New England library, New England cottage, a Jersey shore summer home, Park Avenue apartment, cruise deck, and ocean harbor terrace) it’s somewhat of a measured and deliberate, low tech show. In all aspects, the production values of Strange Interlude never exceed the dramatic values.

The National’s  Nina Leeds is carefully rendered by Ms. Duff; she suffers and almost cracks early on, then lapses into a ghostly despondency as her genderless, erotically- dispossessed marriage, creeps by; in her eye-popping, abortion-plotting scene with her mother-in-law, Ms. Duff is appropriately dumbfounded as she learns of the terrifying congenital psychosis in the Leeds family tree, then near comatose as she accepts and acquiesces in her mother-in-law’s very bizarre fetal-engineering strategy. O’Neill demands a gamut of bewilderment and hysteria in the “Nina” role and Ms. Duff unpacks and interrogates every nuance in her character’s border-line lunacy. Paradoxically, as things get worse for Nina, things also start to get better, and we see this struggle in Ms. Duff’s watery eyes, her sorrowful mask, and her nervous, reed-thin hands and arms. Gradually Nina’s mood swings are less fraught and the arc of her “craziness” is (seemingly) less hysterical. Here’s how O’Neill describes her unsettling serenity in his Act 5 preamble: “one gets no impression of neurotic strain from her now, she seems nerveless and calm”). Ms. Duff not only inhabits and anchors O’Neill’s “nerveless and calm” Nina, but nails the instable role to the floor.

Beyond the deep denial of her bogus housewife role, the prognosis for a reasonably sensible home life seems to be “improving” for Nina. Now, with her Faustian fetal-bargain fulfilled, Nina can rest easy and move on with her restructured and secretly extended family. Equilibrium settles in until Ned, recovering from a serious bout of Euro-wanderlust, resurfaces, and a whole new set of erogenous circumstances kick in. When Ned morphs on the doorstep of Nina’s suburban summer home, she hears his mating call and responds with vigor. Unabashedly, Ms. Duff, in her indelicate, Shameless[iv] television-acting mode, quickly and laughably flips Nina’s disposition from smiley-face and wispy-“Mom” to hot flashes and then sexual beggary; she baldly dishes-up Nina’s erotic impulses through horny billing and cooing, panting, whimpering, and then weepy-hysteria. (This ecstasy-dance all happens with Nina’s cipher-husband, Sam—under direct orders from Nina—shaving upstairs.) As Ms. Duff construes the sexually thirsty Nina, any assignation with Ned, be it a wistful night at home with Sam and Charlie, or a birthday party for their son, Gordon, can trip her insatiable appetite for the leering, philandering, part-time micro-biologist  who “scientifically” fucked her as a favor—a moral imperative—to her unknowing husband and mother-in-law.

Unraveling and rewinding “Nina” is a roller-coaster ride for Miss Duff; and how she sustains her quirky emotional beats for three hours-plus is mind-numbing. O’Neill demands an unmanageable expedition for his volatile character, but Ms. Duff, a luminary and workhorse at The National Theater is a faultless choice for this unremitting and draining role. Equally, Ms. Duff has a risk-taking supporting cast that provides a few deft, howling turns by Darren Pettie (particularly in his interludes with the audience); a repressed and slyly fay performance by Charles Edwards, and a blubbering, baby-Huey performance by Jason Watkins as the witless husband, “Sam.” (As a measuring-stick of Sam’s early arrested development, in his first entrance in the play his trousers are hiked up under his arm pits and he wears a nappy varsity sweater tucked into his waistband.) This is the man that wants to remake the world with the melancholic, passively suicidal Nina? Again, as is his proclivity, O’Neill demands an inhuman performance from his performer and he gets it.

“Sam Evans,” as interpreted by director and performer, is not an easy character for actor or audience to get a handle on, but Godin and Watkins put their imprimatur on the bumbling role and the audience responds to his goofiness and his hidden frustration with measured sympathy. And thanks to Mr. Watkins’ unswerving focus in this unattractive and debilitated role, he is not a weak link in the cast when he undoubtedly could have been. The artistic choice to interpose Sam as a juvenile bumpkin was a sticking point for a few critics of this NT production, but, to their credit, director and actor made a deep-rooted, uncompromising decision with this complicated (but hardly complex) character and saw it through. With Watkins’ and Duff’s impressive character-work the performances could have shouted “tour-de-force,” but fortunately they never rise above the ensemble. The jittery, skittish performance of Miss Duff, the fresh-faced character of Watkins’, the urbane snootiness of Edwards (an Oscar Wilde prototype), and the very funny blustering and waffling of the blow-hard Pettie are honest, consistent and thoroughly in synch with director Godwin’s melancholic, but humoring vision.

As the surreptitious scheme of Strange Interlude coils and uncoils, the needy “claim” that Nina and Ned have on each other becomes obsessive and then overt. The sexually thirsty Nina and the ne’er do well Ned begin to “act-out” their proclivities in plain sight until the intellectually curious (and suspicious) Gordon makes a shocking discovery: “Sam,” his ham-fisted and hopelessly gullible “Dad” might not be his biological father; and Ned, the cloying, overstepping, so-called family friend is every bit the cuckolding prick Gordon thought him to be. When this discovery happens (he catches Nina and Ned purring and kissing at the warm-up to his birthday party) the old Gordon, the spectral Gordon that we only knew as Nina’s spiritual countenance, is vanquished, and the new Gordon, the covertly conceived, in-your-face Gordon, is activated.  And like his namesake, the new and wily Gordon has liminal power over the indivisible troika of Sam, Nina, and greasy lover “Ned.” Uncannily, the consummate dramatist and story-weaver, Eugene O’Neill, by way of this abbreviated, precautious and clearly delineated NT production, has flipped the primeval tale of paternal discovery on its head. That is, instead of the cuckolding mother concealing the devastating secret of false paternity from her cherished son—the son (Gordon) will forever conceal from his naïve, bungling father, the devastating secret that he might be his best-friend’s bastard kid. Slowly, miraculously, this elephantine production of Strange Interlude, under the watchful, controlled stewardship of director, Simon Godwin, is lifting its large, ungainly splayed feet and lumbering forward. And the flabbergasted, almost disbelieving National Theatre audience, are too wide-eyed and incredulous to look away.

Strange Interlude, like many erstwhile O’Neill prize-winning “blockbuster” plays, has a vainglorious production history on the New York stage and in Hollywood. The central role of Nina was made famous by none other than Lynne Fontaine on Broadway[v], and the roles of the Nina and Ned were recreated by Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in an incredibly redacted Hollywood scrunching of the play[vi]. Hollywood marquee names and adulterated script aside, O’Neill couldn’t have cared less. He just wasn’t terribly impressed with movie stars or the movie industry in general. Considering the illustrious if troubled O’Neill family history on the American stage it’s not totally surprising that a future Nobel Laureate[vii] would be indifferent to truncated rehabilitations of his plays for the still emerging tinsel-town. Essentially, the screen adaptation of Strange Interlude, as O’Neill rehabs go, is interesting but not provocative or impassioned. And with the exception of John Ford and Dudley Nichols’ wraithlike screen adaptation of O’Neill’s short sea plays, The Long Voyage Home (which O’Neill consulted on) the O’Neill oeuvre in Hollywood is underwhelming. Yes, in a few places, the O’Neill film archive offers hauntingly beautiful and indomitable performances: Sophia Loren in Desire Under the Elms; Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra; and a dapper, suspendered, silver-haired, Shakespeare-quoting, card-playing, heavy-drinking Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone in a small-screen, production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night[viii]. Inarguably, O’Neill is in the pantheon of Hollywood film lore, but compared to his artistry on the stage, the O’Neill film oeuvre is canned mediocrity.

My only struggle with the gargantuan Strange Interlude is the idea (or gist) of the play itself, namely, the fetal-engineering trickery that sets the stealth events in motion. This “text” bashing is, perhaps, an unfair and unsurprising assessment considering that O’Neill’s work is forever judged against his seminal masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night. His earlier, less mature writing suffers under the strain of comparison and, essentially, is read and discussed by O’Neill doyens, but rarely produced by O’Neill “doers.”

As a result of that comparison Long Day’s Journey has become an extraordinary one-play canon much like Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and Our Town, are one-play archives for Williams, Miller, and Thornton Wilder (in my careful opinion). But regardless of its girth, its insensible premise, its dormant production status, its rickety critical reception, and its middling place in the O’Neill compendium, the largesse of this NT production of Strange Interlude—by sheer fuerza bruta will augment the O’Neill canon in the lending library, countless acting classes and auditions rooms, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com.

The National Theater’s production of Strange Interlude is approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes long; at the final curtain there is heavy applause, a partial-standing ovation and two curtain calls. The ovation of the elderly, theater savvy, matinee audience is generous and heartfelt, and the actors reciprocate with subtle, un-rehearsed, bowing and glad-handing. Obviously there is a formidably high benchmark for standing ovations at The NT considering that founding member and artistic director Laurence Olivier has a resume that is titled and matchless. As Steven Berkhoff[ix] (a Shakespearean director and actor, a great admirer of Olivier, but a bellicose critic of the Olivier-as-Hamlet statue at Theatre Square[x]) so aptly and unwittingly understates him: “He [Olivier] is the greatest messenger of Shakespeare of his generation.” “Generation”?—how about his millennium? With the august theater lore of Eugene O’Neill and Laurence Olivier weighed equally, by the final bell of Strange Interlude—by the final lap through the NT lobby, café, wine bar, archive and website—it almost feels as if we’ve survived Olivier/O’Neill boot camp. Lastly, the decision by the artistic elders at The National Theatre to produce this inimitable, but leaden American classic was a plucky, but manageable project, and exactly what an austere, royally endowed theater is built for.

Following their production of Strange Interlude, The National Theater of England produced a quasi-musical production of the early and obscure Pirandello play, Liolà. The NT house literature boasted of a native-Irish cast, tinker music (Irish gypsies) and an olive-grove folktale setting. For me, a Pirandello devotee, the musicalized tale of a wandering Latin lothario who sells his numberless children as if they were exchangeable car parts sounds like a very brassy venture, perhaps an Oliver! or Annie waiting to happen. Arguably, you won’t find this level of theatrical provocation in contemporary American repertoire because contemporary American playwrights are immersed in “character revealing” plays which address incessant family “issues” and intramural squabbling; hence, over the last half of the 20th century, American repertory has been stocked with plays about “relationships” and “conflict.” Antithetic to this prevailing logic are iconic artists such as Eugene O’Neill and Luigi Pirandello (and de facto, the National Theatre of England) who are driven by cultural memory and reparation. Accordingly, as an instructor in a Communication Arts department in a Brooklyn/Franciscan setting that offers all aspect of performance, it’s my right and responsibility to witness this monolithic, prize-winning, three or four hour O’Neill production (or alternatively)  musicalized tales of rustic Italian olive farmers, and bring their prevailing logic back to my students.

[i] The Lyttelton Theater is the second largest of three theaters at the NT and has a capacity of 890 seats which qualifies it as a legitimate, but smaller, “Broadway” sized venue. The other venues at the NT are the Olivier and The Shed. The Olivier, named after the NT’s founding member and artistic director Laurence Olivier, is, essentially, the main stage at the NT with a capacity of 1125 seats. The Olivier is comparable in size to large capacity theaters in New York such as The Majestic Theater or The Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. The Shed, the smallest and most intimate of the three venues is an experimental theater that can be defined in theater vernacular as a “black box” theater or simply an “empty space.” The NT web site defines and explains The Shed as a “temporary” space that produces projects that are “original, ambitious and unexpected.” Lastly, as a performing complex The NT can be compared in size and artistic temperament to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City which houses numerous venues such as The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; Avery Fisher Hall; the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and their flagship venue, The Metropolitan Opera House. For more on the NT facility and artistic mission go to nationaltheatre.org.
[ii] “Doughboy” is the moniker for the hoard of boyish American soldiers that fought in France in World War I. O’Neill’s youthful character, “Gordon,” is a classic doughboy. I think the idiom is clarifying and appropriate in this context because it very accurately defines Gordon’s status in the America military.
[iii] Strange Interlude, Second Part, Act V. For all stage notes and line quotations from Strange Interlude I consulted the Boni and Liveright Trade Edition as posted on Project Gutenberg Australia.
[iv] Shameless is an explicit, vulgar British television production that follows a dysfunctional and decrepit borderline lower-working class family day to day, moment to moment. Ms. Duff plays a brash, sexually casual “sister” who is a central character on the show. Shameless has been reinvented for an American cable audience with a grimy Chicago-Irish family that is equally “shameless” in their slovenliness.
[v] Strange Interlude opened on Broadway on January 30, 1928, at the John Golden Theater with Lynn Fontaine in the role of “Nina.” O’Neill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (one of four) for this play.
[vi] Strange Interlude, MGM, 1932: directed by Robert Z. Leonard, with Norma Shearer and Clark Cable. O’Neill and Bess Meredyth are credited on the International Movie Database (IMDb) as “Writers.” Meredyth is credited as “dialogue continuity”. O’Neill is credited as: “from the play by.”
[vii] The 1930’s was an august decade for dramatists. The Italian novelist, playwright and scholar, Luigi Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934. On November 13, 1936, The New York Times reported that there was no prize awarded in 1935; accordingly, when O’Neill won the prize in 1936, he received financial remuneration for both the 1935 and 1936 awards. The Times noted that the sum total of both prizes was a windfall “$45 000 dollars.” For more on this see the official website of the Nobel Prize: Nobelprize.org.
[viii] For a cursory look at the O’Neill filmography see the International Movie Data Base/IMDb. For a thorough discussion of the entire O’Neill canon see the Gelb or Sheaffer biographies.  
[ix] Berkhoff was a very vocal and acerbic critic of the recently erected memorial statue of Olivier in an area adjacent to the National Theater known as Theater Square. The London Telegraph reported that Berkhoff ranted that the statue was a “… load of crap.” Olivier’s son, Tarquin Olivier, an advocate and fundraiser for the statue, led a counter-attack against Berkhoff’s pedestrian criticism.
[x] Olivier-as-Hamlet: bronze statue, Southbank, London, by Angela Conner. Unveiled September, 2007.

Timothy Dugan, D.Litt.
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Arts
St. Francis College