After one out of the ballpark hit and one in the gutter miss with O’Neill, I found myself both eager and afraid of seeing Strange Interlude, his Pulitzer-prize winning 1928 play. Would it be a work of glorious insight into the human condition, or a self-indulgent piece of tripe that left me squirming anxiously for a chance to run out of the theater?
Well … kind of yes to both, but more on the side of “squirming,” Strange Interlude was an unintentional comedy that had me wanting to reach into the grave and wrap my hands around Eugene’s dessicated neck. Most of this was due to one stylistic choice: the speaking of thoughts, as asides, by ALL of the characters, nearly constantly. Imagine a man saying to us (the audience), “Oh, no, it’s her dad, the hearthearted bastard!” then turning to “her dad” and saying, “Phil! Wonderful to see you!” It’s hard not to find this funny, and while, perhaps, the audience of the 1920s found the psychological insights allowed by this non-realistic narrative to be deeply revealing, we, the audience at the National last night, couldn’t help but chuckle, guffaw, snicker, giggle, titter, and laugh uproariously at what seemed to be genuinely meant monologueing. It all began to feel like a parody, very much in the style of The Thirty-nine Steps, an effect not helped by the non-monologuing characters needing to pause and pretend that it was natural for people to take three minutes to think to themselves, “silently,” in the middle of a paragraph of dialogue.
And, well, then there were the characters, and the situations they were in. Consider Nina Leeds (Anne-Marie Duff), one of the most unattractive heroines ever to grace the American stage: completely self-absorbed, more than slightly crazy, and indifferent to such approaches to life as “treating people like they matter.” Her dilemma about how to handle the likelihood of inheritable illness from her husband’s family was one that I found potentially touching in the light of the story of fatal familial insomnia a.k.a. inheritable Mad Cow Disease – but her decision to abort so quickly seemed to have a bit more of eugenics to it than common sense. And the stiff, semi-hysterical way her mother-in-law (Geraldine Alexander) addressed her – it was hard to believe either of these women were supposed to be real people.
In fact, the entire lot of side-speaking, self-questioning, irritating people that made up this show seemed to be all cut out of cardboard, and for as realistic as they were, I could have been watching dancing paper dolls. I understand this was a first preview, and there were a couple of slips with dialogue, but, really, this wasn’t a case of poor or unrehearsed acting: these people were all despicable because they were written that way. How audiences could have stood this when it was new I have no idea; but when the character who’s meant to be a moron is the most believable (and sympathetic), you know something has gone terribly wrong. I mean, seriously: we were reduced to applauding the scenery because it was something nice (I didn’t clap; I’d been laughing to heartily to endure any more physical effort). I stuck it through to the end out of a perverse desire to say I’d made it through all three hours and twenty-five minutes of it; but if you aren’t in the position of feeling like you need to do something to compensate yourself for the money you’d wasted on tickets, save yourself the trouble and just buy a copy of the script. This turkey should have got the chop long ago.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013. The play continues at the National through August 12th.)