Reviewed by James Karas
Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude has been cut down to less than three and a half hours for its production by England’s National Theatre on the Lyttleton Stage. That is a good starting point for this early play.
O’Neill wrote Strange Interlude in 1923 but it was first produced on Broadway in 1928 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is an interesting play to say the least, at times engrossing and at times drowning in its verbosity.
The plot is fairly straightforward with some risqué elements that caused problems with censors when it was first produced.
Nina Leeds (Anne Marie Duff) is the daughter of Professor Henry Leeds (Patrick Drury). She was in love with Gordon Shaw who was killed in World War I. We never see Gordon but he is a central character in the play. After some sordid affairs, Nina marries Sam Evans (Jason Watkins), a fool with a head for business. She becomes pregnant by him but his mother (played by Geraldine Alexander) tells her that insanity runs in the Evans family. Here comes the risqué part: Nina aborts her child and conceives another one with Dr. Ned Darrell (Darren Pettie). Her husband believes that the son, named Gordon after Nina’s first lover, is his while she falls in love with the real father.
That could be the plot of a melodrama where the lovers fear being found out, there are divided loyalties, hand-wringing and eventual something-or-other. All those elements exist in O’Neill’s play but they are of secondary importance.
O’Neill wants us to know what each character is thinking and each character’s interpretation of what others are saying or thinking. The method he uses is that of the aside or the soliloquy. All of the characters comment on what they really think after they say something. They simply change their tone of voice and speak their mind as if the other person does not hear what they are saying. That is not an occasional occurrence but a constant thread throughout the play. Even when we see the child Gordon as an 11-year old, he says his part of the dialogue and then adds an aside comment.
There were times when I thought that these characters are not people but amateur psychoanalysts staring at their bellybuttons and constantly analyzing what they and everyone else was saying.
As happens in better plays by O’Neill, you do get sucked in by the very verbosity of the work and watch and wait for the next turn in the plot however slowly it may arrive.
The performers/self-analysts are led by Duff. Her Nina is a slender woman with no particular intellectual attraction or sexual magnetism and I could not figure out why so many men seemed to fall in love with her. The handsome Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards) is in love with her, the successful, brilliant and fine-looking Dr. Darrell spends a lifetime running away and returning to her. Her husband is very loving and if he were not so dumb he would have known that his son was fathered by another man.
The play takes a whole generation from Nina’s love affairs to the death of Sam by which time son Gordon (Wilf Scolding) has grown up and is ready to marry the lovely Madeline (Emily Plumtree).
Despite the risqué features, the play takes the high moral ground. Sam and Gordon are never told about who the father of Gordon really is. When Sam suffers a stroke Nina nurses him until his death instead of abandoning him to his fate.
One aspect of the production that deserves unstinting praise is the staging and stage design of Soutra Gilmour. The interior of the Leeds home from study to sitting room and a boat from which to watch a rowing race are shown richly and magnificently on the Lyttleton’s revolving stage.
The actors handled the roles very well and in fact made them look very easy. 45Director Simon Godwin deserves high praise as well for keeping the interesting psychodrama moving and let that be the last word for the play – interesting
Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill opened on June 4 and continues until September 1, 2013 in repertory at the Lyttleton Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/