Strange Interlude, one of four Eugene O’Neill plays to have won a Pulitzer Prize, is brilliant, magisterial, and provocative. How then, does one actor, David Greenspan, take the complex story of Nina Leeds and the four men in her life, a play that is written in nine acts and spans five hours in the telling, and deliver the highs and the lows, the strange twists of fate, the loves, and the schemes of its characters? Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, Greenspan is alternately Nina, Charles, Ned and Sam (and three minor characters as well), maintaining an energetic, staccato presence while shifting, sometimes with gunfire rapidity, among these characters. Who would have imagined that this 1928 whale of a play could be acted as a one-man show to riveting effect? Greenspan is extraordinary, and he brings to life an extraordinary play.
Instead of exploring one love relationship in the life of his protagonist, O’Neill brings us four different relationships in the life of one woman, as if to say that the usual stories of love have been too insistent on searching out a single underlying truth, when the reality, for each of us, is many things. Gordon, a pilot killed in action in the First World War, is Nina’s unconsummated love whose shadow stretches across her life; he is a presence in all of her relationships. Sam is a business-minded, fundamentally naive man whom Nina marries and appreciates, and whom she learns to love. She yearns to make his happiness her life’s goal.
In order to bring her husband the child he craves, Nina undertakes a passionate affair with Ned, in a scheme to make Sam a father (in his bloodline there is inherited insanity). Indeed, the idea of adultery is first suggested by Sam’s mother, who knows that a child is necessary for his happiness. Nina’s adultery, then, is undertaken, not out of weakness, but as the means of bringing joy to Sam. And Nina succeeds. Sam adores the son he does not know isn’t his. How different those three loves are in tone and in their satisfactions from Nina’s love for Charles, the man she marries after Sam’s death! Theirs is a love that is not romantic, intense or dutiful, but filled instead with the echoes and music of their long lives and friendship.
And what are we to make of Nina’s adultery, which arrives, in a twist of the fates, as her response to the terrible secret of inherited insanity? How could her action, as she herself says, be so wrong at the same time that it is so right? Here is the “hard nut” that O’Neill asks us to contemplate. What makes something right? And what makes something wrong? Is Nina a good person? What makes someone a good person or a bad person?
Toward the end of the play Charles notes the “strangeness” of our lives and the twists of fate that make it up: “[T]he present is an interlude … strange interlude, in which we call on past and future to bear witness that we are living.” Here is O’Neill with unsparing psychological realism and a recognition of how life escapes the categories in which people try to contain it. Yet Strange Interlude is not the dark, bleak O’Neill familiar from other plays. Nina has wrested a life from the debris that life has laid at her feet with Gordon’s death.
Directed with verve and invention by Jack Cummings III, Strange Interlude is staged on the spare sets of three performance spaces at the Irondale Theater. Given the length of the evening, this works well. The audience moves from one space to the next as directed, stretching legs and perhaps sharing a comment with a companion. Long as it is, this enthralling production is not to be missed.
Transport Group’s production of Strange Interlude plays through Nov. 18 at the Irondale Theater Center, 85 S. Oxford St., Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Performances are at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Strange Interlude has a running time of six hours, including three 10-minute intermissions and one 30-minute dinner break. If you wish to pre-order dinner for $17, email email@example.com no later than 24 hours before your performance. To view the menu and for more information about the dinner options available, visit transportgroup.org/season/greene-grape-strange-interlude. Audience members may also bring dinner, but there is no refrigeration. Beer, wine, and snacks will be available before the show, and during intermissions and the dinner break.