*Strange Interlude,* 10/18/17
I saw *Strange Interlude* at the Transport Group in Brooklyn on 10/18/17. It's a play from the 1920s by Eugene O'Neill, I first saw it the 1980's - - PBS made a film of the 1985 Broadway production with Glenda Jackson in the central role of Nina and Jose Ferrer, Rosemary Harris, Ken Howard, and a young and dewy Kenneth Branagh in smaller roles. I loved the soapy, overheated drama and wore out the VHS tape.
I always hoped that I'd get to see the play, and a few years ago I started a prayer that Cate Blanchett would do it, it would be a fantastic part for her. I continue that prayer, but was intrigued to see that this little Brooklyn company was doing a production with just ONE actor, David Greenspan. He was playing all nine roles, and in a five-hour play, it sounded damn impressive. Plus who knew if I would ever get another chance to see it?
It was incredible, even more extraordinary than I thought it would be. The solo performance aspect of it was the most impressive element, but it was also a deeply satisfying production of the play.
The play was done in a big old church, and they constructed three different performing spaces, with the audience moving back and forth over the course of the performance. There were only about fifty seats, so it didn't take very long for us to move around. Here's an overview of the pattern of movement:
Act I and Act II: space A
Act III: space B
Act IV: space A
Act V: space B
[thirty-minute dinner break in the choir loft]
Act VI: space B
Act VII: space A
Act VIII and Act IX: space C
Spaces A and B were next to each other on the main floor and space C was up in the choir loft. I felt like moving around added a nice variety to the show, but the rather elderly woman sitting next to me felt otherwise. Her direct quote was, "This is getting old."
The thing that impressed me the most at first was the sheer volume of the text, and Greenspan's effortless facility with it. But the memorization aspect faded soon and I was drawn into the play and his performance - - or, to be more precise, performances. He and director Jack Cummings III worked out an elaborate set of behaviors for each character, focusing on the voice (the placement of the voice, specific inflections, and character-driven diction) and the body (body stance, facial expressions, gestures, and manner of walking). He shifted easily from character to character, he never made a big production out of it. The most extraordinary moment of his characterization was at the start of one of the acts - - he was sitting in an armchair, facing forward. The lights came up and he sat there, silent and motionless for maybe twenty or thirty seconds. You'd think we wouldn't know what character he was playing, but I could tell just by the expression on his face that he was playing Nina.
One of the things that makes *Strange Interlude* unique is that O'Neill takes the interior monologue and makes it exterior. The characters talk to each other, but also speak their thoughts aloud. I'd guess that the dialogue we hear is about 30% speaking and 70% thinking. Greenspan and Cummings did a great job of conveying the difference between speaking and thinking, in a way that didn't break the flow.
My favorite moment in the whole evening was a scene that featured Nina, her husband, and her lover. The lover sat on the couch, the husband at the table, and Nina in the chair between them. This geography was set up early in the scene, and Greenspan's movement between these locations was done in a fluid way. Sometimes (often) a character would speak from another character's place, but it was clear who was speaking and also understood that character was sitting across the room. This sounds more confusing than it was.
At one point the husband was reading the newspaper while Nina and her lover looked at each other knowingly, speaking their furtive thoughts about each other aloud to the audience. The husband picked up the paper, faced forward, and held it in front of his face, blocking his whole head and torso. And from behind the paper we heard the thoughts of Nina and her lover, the voices very clearly defined. It was a moment of theatrical magic and wit.
Greenspan and Cummings respected the soapy element of the play, they didn't shy away from that at all. Greenspan really went all out with the heightened emotion, he found the emotional truth in the melodrama. They allowed us to laugh now and then at the hokeyness of it, but our laughter was never, "Oh, this is ridiculous," but always, "This is charming and rather dated."
There was some kind of theatrical alchemy going on - - by the end of the show, I really felt like I was looking at more than one person onstage. In the last scene, Greenspan was standing on the left, talking to another character, and I really and truly looked to the right to see that person's reaction.