Men and women regularly submit themselves to excruciating ordeals, if only to be able to say afterwards that they reached the top of the Matterhorn or plowed through the currents around the Cape of Good Hope. So I suppose there will be an audience for Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude," which opened a limited engagement last night at the Nederlander Theatre.
While I can't imagine anyone drawing much spiritual sustenance from this five-hour, English-born revival starring Glenda Jackson, sitting through it can be cited as evidence of muscular endurance. Those patrons of the recent 10-hour "Nicholas Nickleby," who proudly sported lapel buttons saying "I've been Nicked," ought to be salivating at this new opportunity to prove themselves. "Strange Interlude" represents a veritable bludgeoning and should get them a silk merit badge, at the very least.
Although the nine-act play won O'Neill one of his four Pulitzer Prizes and was hailed in 1928 for its size and scope, half a century has merely served to diminish its originality and bring all its faults into sharp focus. The saga of the manipulative Nina Leeds (Jackson) and the men -- lover, husband, friend and son -- in her neurasthenic life, it is lumberingly melodramatic and painfully overelaborated. O'Neill wanted to introduce a sense of Greek fatality into the American drama, but fate clomps through "Strange Interlude" like an oafish understudy thrust on stage before he's mastered his lines.
The dialogue, once praised for its blunt honesty, sounds bloated and pretentious today, and this production, which doesn't seem to have been directed as much as chiseled in granite by the ominously named Keith Hack, compounds the impression. Because he wanted to probe deep into the subconscious (and also because he didn't trust actors to explore the full nuances of his lines), O'Neill had the characters in "Strange Interlude" voice their private thoughts and fears in asides. The problem is not that the innovation has gone stale -- asides have always been part of the theater -- but that O'Neill used it so clumsily.
Indeed, much of what the characters in "Strange Interlude" reveal about themselves in this fashion is highly redundant. Either they wrestle with what they are going to say -- and then promptly say it for the benefit of the other characters -- or they chew away on private doubts and antagonisms that are abundantly illustrated on the surface of the play. At best, the device allows O'Neill to strike a few leaden ironies here and there. Mostly, it permits him to belabor the obvious.
What the play requires to stay afloat these days is a shimmeringly magnetic actress in the role of Nina Leeds, the headstrong, willful woman who, given the number of men she manages to juggle successfully over the course of her life, is also something of an enchantress. Haunted by the poetic memory of the boyfriend who died in World War I, Nina drifts into dissolution, then pulls herself temporarily together by marrying an ineffectual dolt. Pregnant when she learns that insanity runs rampant in his family, she aborts their child and turns to a lover, a doctor, to give her a healthy son. She manages to keep the child's paternity (and her love affair) secret until her husband keels over from a heart attack. But by this time, her lover exasperates her, and she settles into her twilight years with a friend, the prissy second-rate novelist who has carried an admittedly limp torch for her all these years.
Jackson captures the chilly neuroticism of the character vividly enough, suggesting Charlotte Corday as she might be played by the Snow Queen. The actress has always projected a keen intelligence coolly and effortlessly. Whenever her superiority to the men in "Strange Interlude" is in momentary doubt, she instinctively elongates her swanlike neck and juts out her chin. And she's back on the Mount Olympus of leading ladies again.
Her eyes are as alert as a ferret's, her nose disdainful, and her smile invariably the wry smile of incipient triumph. When she flirts, it is the theatrical equivalent of a chess maneuver. Even her voice knows no abandon; it seems to be forever priding itself on its perfect pitch. Like her Hedda Gabler, Jackson's Nina always appears in control, even when her inner self is presumably wracked by crippling desires. In time -- of which there is an abundance in "Strange Interlude" -- the thought occurs that Jackson doesn't act; she sculpts performances in ice.
This one is imprisoned by a limited number of mannerisms that remain constant from Nina's impetuous youth to her brittle old age. Where is the sexuality that enslaves these men, the spontaneity that throws them off balance, the mystery that keeps them coming back for more? Where, in fact, is the creeping age? (Jackson tugs a cloche hat over her chestnut locks and that's it.)
Without a seductive and multidimensional Nina, O'Neill's male characters come across as either fools or masochists who test your patience far more than they provoke your understanding. Jackson has brought her leading men along with her from England, but none, apparently, is able to throw her a challenge or dares pitch her a curve. As characters, they worship her with fitful slavishness. As actors, they submit dutifully to her authority.
James Hazeldine is credible enough as the boobish husband, who at least has dimwittedness as an out, but Edward Petherbridge makes the fussy novelist into the kind of walking flounce that Tony Randall plays in his sleep. Brian Cox oozes more sweat than desire as the lover and ends up in a disheveled state that brings to mind one of the victims of Graham Greene's tropics. The American actors who flesh out the cast range from the acceptable (Tom Aldredge, as Nina's father) to the execrable (Elizabeth Lawrence, who seems to think she's cast as a witch in "Macbeth" instead of as Nina's mother-in-law).
At a time when it is all but moribund creatively, Broadway is turning increasingly to "marathon" events to pump up its sagging sense of self-importance and -- at $50 a ticket, in this case -- to inflate its pocketbook. There's nothing wrong with thinking big, as "Cyrano de Bergerac" lavishly illustrated. But size can also be lethal when allied with posturing as stilted as that in "Strange Interlude." We are simply reminded of what huffing and puffing did to the big, bad wolf.