About two hours into Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 3-hour, 45-minute production of “Strange Interlude,” the tragic condition of Eugene O’Neill’s troubled, meddlesome heroine, Nina Leeds, comes securely into focus. And the laughter in Sidney Harman Hall begins to build.
The chuckles start sporadically, as the audience senses ever more confidently the humor in the contradictions between what the characters say and what they really think; in this Pulitzer Prize-winning 1928 play — rarely revived on American stages — O’Neill had the audacious idea of requiring the nine characters to give voice, in audience asides, to all of their private thoughts.
As the guffaws multiply on this curious though by no means uninteresting evening (thanks in part to a riveting central performance by Francesca Faridany) one is compelled to wonder: Is this O’Neill, probing a tormented soul, or Noel Coward, exercising a delicious wit?
What seems to account for this strange phenomenon is the distance the popular mind has traveled since the restless O’Neill heaved one theatrical experiment after another into the field of vision of American culture. “Strange Interlude” — originally a more than five-hour play, complete with dinner break — has so many melodramatic plot twists that a discussion of them would fill the pages of an issue of Soap Opera Digest. As the characters reveal for us their takes on each juicy, dirty secret, and then in the next instant decisively betray a lover, embroider a lie, or execute a 180-degree shift in behavior, the jarring, even ludicrous, pivots strike many a contemporary theatergoer as risible.
In director Michael Kahn’s brisk and handsomely pared-down production, I could not tell all the time whether the laughs the actors generated were intentional; while the contortions that O’Neill puts his characters through are now the raw material for sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” the characters themselves are not. Nina, in particular, spends the quarter-century that “Strange Interlude” examines trying to rebound from the death in World War I of the great love of her life, the unseen Gordon. At the start of the evening, the aerial tailspin flashing in vintage black-and-white footage on the bare walls of Walt Spangler’s admirably spare, epic-scale set is a visual cue for the emotional one that colors all of the play’s ensuing anguish.
But even if O’Neill’s antique construct contributes to some miscommunication of tone, the piece as a whole stands as a watchable milestone in the development of modern American drama. Yes, the rewards are felt only marginally in the slow early movements of this three-act, two-intermission minimarathon, which Kahn — whose O’Neill productions include a well-remembered revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra” in 1997 — has expertly trimmed. So if you hang on (and, admittedly, more than a few chose not to on Monday night, in a far-less-than-sold-out Harman Hall), the characters’ endless wrestling with the truth, their self-serving ruses and self-protective gambits, will jell for you into something surprisingly absorbing.