When Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" appeared in 1928, many critics claimed it proved that O'Neill was America's foremost playwright and dramatic innovator. Michael Kahn's sensitive production of "Strange Interlude" currently at the Shakespeare Theatre Company reinforces the judgment of those critics.
Some topics addressed in "Strange Interlude" were at best unfamiliar, at worst scandalous, when the play first appeared: eugenics, subconscious desire, promiscuity, abortion. In terms of its style, "Interlude" was equally radical. O'Neill experimented with interior monologues and asides, allowing characters to reveal their true feelings while other characters could not hear them speak.
"Strange Interlude" takes place over 25 years in the life of Nina Leeds (Francesca Faridany). Circling around her are: her father (Ted van Griethuysen); an ineffectual novelist, Charlie Marsden (Robert Stanton); a boring young fellow named Sam Evans (Ted Koch); and a charming doctor, Ned Darrell (Baylen Thomas). All of them adore Nina.
|Where: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW|
|When: Through April 29|
|Info: $20 to $100; discounts available; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheatre.org|
At the beginning of the play, Nina has just learned that her fiance has been killed in World War I. Although never recovering, Nina agrees to marry Sam, in order to have children and give her existence meaning. But life is never so simple in an O'Neill drama. Nina eventually has Ned's baby, a secret they don't reveal for years.
Faridany sails brightly through this "Interlude," at times like a Noel Coward heroine, keeping all the men entranced. The play requires simultaneous sympathy for and mistrust of Nina; Faridany elegantly elicits both.
Faridany is well-matched with Thomas, whose urbane Ned is so in love he has to retire to Europe to avoid Nina's spell. Koch is excellent as the bumptious Sam. Marsden effectively plays up the humor in the role of the insipid Charlie, who functions as a loving uncle to Nina, her "father" after her real father dies.
Walt Spangler's set is refreshingly simple. High, bare walls are made to serve as Professor Leeds' library, the kitchen of the Evans' upstate New York home, a Park Avenue apartment and the backdrop for a boat race. Jane Greenwood's beautifully designed clothes help pinpoint time as the play moves through the decades.
Kahn directs this production with intelligence, treating the stream-of-consciousness asides seriously, giving them maximum weight. And ultimately it is those asides that give the play its depth, as they reveal the real nature and feelings of each character. At times, the interior thoughts show each individual's emotional anguish. At other times, they are cause for laughter, as they prove various characters' hypocritical stances.
But Kahn's real contribution to this production is his editing, turning the original text into a compelling, centered vision of four characters trying desperately to define and hold on to changing images of happiness.