Theater review by Helen Shaw
The greatest compliment I can give to David Greenspan for his one-man performance of Strange Interlude is that he makes a nearly impossible play work. The stickiest of Eugene O’Neill’s Greek-tragedy-influenced dramas, Interlude is a nine-act, high-concept behemoth, in which characters speak their “silent” thoughts in stream-of-consciousness soliloquies full of psychosexual confusion and self-doubt. The play was a success when it premiered in 1928, but time hasn’t been kind. Its melodrama, its length, its self-importance and its obsession with (and misunderstanding of) heredity and psychology have made it seem almost unperformable.
At the play’s center is a love quadrangle among four characters in a New England college town: Nina, torn nearly to pieces by her fiancé’s death in the Great War; family friend Charles, whose novelist’s eye sees much but does little; the well-meaning Sam, who wants to tend to Nina; and Ned, a young doctor who loses his clinical objectivity during an intense affair. O’Neill does provide some beautiful moments of grief. (Charles, wondering if he should woo Nina, turns internally savage about “My…ugly…body.”) But it’s hard to ignore the unfortunate twin concepts that drive the play. The first is genetic heredity, which O’Neill turns into something like an Aeschylean idea of fate; the other is a soupy, quasi-Freudian understanding of sexuality, which was radical for its time but, to 21st-century ears, sounds a bit risible as the play heats up.
Greenspan and his director, Jack Cummings III, lean into the play’s goony, 19th-century hysteria, and they don’t apologize for the six-hour length; they just make sure we get a quick dinner during one of the three intermissions. (I recommend the chicken.) The physical production, which features sets and costumes by Dane Laffrey and lighting by Jen Schriever, is astonishingly lovely: a series of tiny interiors and one magnificent exterior that evokes the deck of a yacht with nothing but a wash of Long Island light and a vast plywood expanse. Most important, Greenspan meets O’Neill’s high concept with his own. By pouring all of Interlude through the filter of a single performer, he strains out the largest flaws. O’Neill’s ideas of, say, “womanhood” remain bizarre. But as melted together in this performer’s crucible, the production recovers the delights of melodrama—Greenspan strikes dancerly dramatic attitudes—and becomes a play about the complex way our own fluid identities, and others’ perceptions of us, flow together and alchemize.
Greenspan is a rara avis of the theater, a super-stylized force onstage who moves like Martha Graham and speaks like a muted jazz trumpet. Dressed in a somber three-piece suit, he delineates characters through physical shifts and slight changes in vocal timbre. Each of his portraits is a mini-masterpiece: Sam’s a gee-whiz fella who thinks his wife loves him; Nina is rueful and tempestuous, her eyes cast down; Ned, through some trick of Greenspan’s, seems to weigh twice as much as the others. No one should be able to perform solo for six straight hours with such technical precision, but Greenspan is a freight train. As the audience, dazed and bruised by the marathon, slumps in its seats, the performer only gets stronger and finer as he drives toward O’Neill’s hysterical ending. His final gesture—a flourish that seems to come down from Isadora Duncan—suggests both a warding off and a beckoning. He’s calling down the Muses, and down they come.
Irondale Center (Off Broadway). By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Jack Cummings III. With David Greenspan. Running time: 6hrs. Three intermissions. Through Nov 18.
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