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Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude’

Alice Singleton
Photo by Eric Y. Exit

The Neo Futurists take what may be O’Neill’s most gut-wrenching work and make dry hijinks from inception to final bow.

Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude’

Strange Interlude ran 6-8 March 2009 at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, as part of the series “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century”. It was Now, Voyager, Stella Dallas, Magnificent Obsession, and Nicholas Nickleby all rolled into one – for an audience of the criminally insane. The Chicago-based troupe The Neo-Futurists made feather-light of Eugene O’Neill’s extra-extra heavy Strange Interlude, the last in the series of the Goodman’s O’Neill festival . Strange Interlude is a marathon-mammoth production of nine acts (and as if to heap punishment upon the financially beleaguered press corps even more, Friday night’s performance did not include the O’Neill-mandated dinner break). But unlike a baseball game, the outs are slow to come but the production moves quickly and robustly along, remaining faithful to O’Neill’s storyline and his utilization of Realism, as well as including the O’Neill invention of soliloquy, the play’s characters speaking their inner thoughts, giving the audience full measure of character motivation and plot movement. The Neo Futurists take what may be O’Neill’s most gut-wrenching work and make dry hijinks from inception to final bow. Nina Leeds is destined and expected to go insane from grief and regret. Raised privileged, motherless and a boarding school brat by her professor father, Nina returns to a drafty New England mansion greeted by her father and her unrequited suitor, Charles Marsden, both men hoping for, but not finding signs of lucidness and domesticity in Nina. It was insanity’s brink that led her eastbound years earlier, after receiving confirmation that her one true love, the fighter pilot Gordon, perished and was cremated two days before the armistice of the Great War. No man could ever replace Gordon. Her life’s plans lay in ruin, cursed by the eternal nightmare that she would never lose her virginity or bear children with the deceased Gordon. Though perpetually depressed, Nina bends toward the promise of casual sex with patients in the medically sanctioned, medicated environs at the sanitarium of Dr. Edmund Darrell. After much debate, spoken-word and soliloquy, Dr. Leeds gives his blessing for Nina to pursue her ambition. Charles, no more than that of a reliable antique chair to Nina, registers his protest of her decision by silently falling into an emotional abyss of solace into the arms of French prostitutes during his European sojourns; Nina ignores Charles, and Charles is reminded of toddler Nina’s nickname for him: dog. Charles decides upon Nina’s return East to work at the Sanitarium, to remain loyal to his fantasies of what could be with Nina, and re-dedicates his cuckholded commitment to hypochondriac mother and the occasional French prostitute, in his heart, at least, reaffirming his commitment of a dog-eared and do-eyed loyalty to his neglectful mistress Nina. Upon her return to the family mansion several years later, having completed her nurse’s apprenticeship with Dr. Darrell, Charles awaits to attend to Nina as she prepares for her father’s funeral. It is clear to Chares that Nina is sinking further into the realm of terminal madness, and the only rescue for her is in the sanctity of marriage and family of her own. Though many years have passed, along with a great many casual lovers, Nina continues to feel the cravings of death by suicide, inconsolable over the loss of Pilot Gordon. Charles woefully accepts that Nina would not consider him to be a worthy suitor, yet his loyalty to Nina and the memory of her dead father propels Charles to play yenta with Dr. Darrell and secure a “safe” suitor/future husband for Nina. Trying to avoid insanity as much as anyone, Nina gives her blessing to her matchmakers and once the candidate has been secured, Nina agrees to marry Sam Evans, a jovial goof of an overgrown frat boy. Sam is the perfect sucker -- unworldly, completely clueless and the bipolar opposite of Nina’s dark, haunted worldliness. While Nina barely clings to this world and begs for death’s merciful sting, sunshine and rainbows are dominate in Sam’s world. Nina does not love Sam, but he’s too stupid to notice; he’s another man corralled into making the self-absorbed Nina happy at any cost. She wills herself to have relations with him, comparing their anticipated conjugal pairing parallel to the “nursing duties” she performed for the male patients at the sanatorium. Sexual relations with any other man but Pilot Gordon are medicinal and mechanical. Soon Nina becomes pregnant, and decides she can love Sam because she loves her pregnancy and her anticipated bundle of joy. Her love is obligatory, Sam’s given Nina the gift of life and generational succession – much as if he’d donated a kidney -- but darkness makes its return to Nina’s world. The couple is summoned by Sam’s mother, furiously writing to the couple every week demanding their presence at her rambling upstate farmhouse, never letting up her hysterical correspondence campaign until Sam and Nina finally pay a visit. Nina experiences a total eclipse of body and soul when Sam’s mother confides that Sam is genetically predisposed to organic insanity, which will soon propel him into derangement and death. If Sam was ever informed of the affliction that awaits him, his insanity is sure to happen even sooner. The children he sires will also suffer the same fate -- but it’s too late – Nina is secretly pregnant. Nina and her new mother-in-law are bonded in the knowledge that the pregnancy will be terminated (and for the express purposes of plot expediency and ribald reworking of O’Neill, we witness what has to be the first at-home balloon abortion). Sam must be kept ignorant of his coming insanity and the terminated pregnancy and Nina must quickly find a suitable donor-father. Mother-in-law assures Nina that her plan is the only way to insure that neither of the young couple will go mad from the knowledge of the horrible twist of fate. Conveniently, Dr. Darrell pays a visit to check up on the young couple, having taken up residence at her deceased father’s mansion. Putting her best face and physical charms forward, Nina conjures up Dr. Darnell’s barely hidden attraction for her and seduces him into “stud service”, saving her marriage and extending Sam’s sanity. Dr. Darnell, convincing himself that his “service” was in the interest of friendship to the couple and the “noble science” of eugenics, heads to the Bahamas to set up a research lab, Charles leaves for Europe to grieve his dead mother, Sam gains great personal confidence and business acumen from having “impregnated” his wife, and Nina is blissfully happy, finally giving birth to “Gordon’s” baby, with Sam joyfully agreeing to name the boy after the only man his wife has every shown unbridled love and eternal devotion. Of course wanderlust and depression seeps into Nina’s world when Sam does not sink into madness and excruciating death as promised, but instead remains blissfully healthy and intellectually ignorant, becoming a captain of industry, getting fat in body and confident in spirit. Returning from Europe with nothing to do beyond writing “bad best-selling mysteries for elderly ladies”, Charles sticks around, hoping for Sam’s imminent death, leaving Nina no choice but to finish out her years at Charles’ side. His plan to finally replace the "dying" Sam in wedded malaise with Nina is derailed with the return of Dr. Darrell, tan and rested, declaring undying love for Nina and desperately wanting to reveal to Sam little Gordon’s true father. Nina quickly requites his feelings, but refuses to let Dr. Darrell destroy Sam and young Gordon with the devastating truth. Nina and Dr. Darrell continue their affair through several decades. Charles watches resentfully from the sidelines, Sam remains mentally well and emotionally stupid, ironically become happier and healthier over time. Young Gordon grows up hating his real father, wondering why this almost-a-stranger has such power over his mother, who never seems happy or accessible until Dr. Darrell makes a house visit. Young Gordon favors none of his parents, biological or social, but much to the shock and resentment of Nina, mimics Sam. “Spittin’ image of his father,” Sam crows at every Young Gordon achievement. Nina is further determined to make Young Gordon Pilot “Gordon’s rightful son”, continuing to convince herself that of all the men in her life, only Pilot Gordon was man enough to deserve a generational line of succession and true love of a finely bred woman such as herself. Dr. Darrell is determined to claim his family as his own, and develops a hatred for Nina, who refuses to let him out of their unholy pack. Having committed to Nina’s dark plan years earlier, Dr. Darrell finds himself eternally dedicated to and in love with a woman he can’t stand. Years of the charade bend the emotional back of Dr. Darrell – he takes permanent leave to his Bahamian research lab. Charles leaves for an extended stay of years in Europe. Sam keeps getting richer, fatter, and stays mentally intact. Nina begins to physically crack under the weight of her “live” husband, she becomes a walking monument to the picture of Dorian Gray, the lines deepening into her face, each wrinkle representing empirical evidence of her now-feral resentment of Sam for having magically avoiding his natural fate. In so doing, he unwitting denies Nina the carnal and intellectual companionship of Dr. Darrell, who has gone so far as to visit Sam’s hometown to refute Nina’s mother-in-law’s claims of inherited insanity, finding only truth to the old woman’s story. Sam, it seems has a recessive gene that dodged a trip on the crazy train, a reality that further depresses and discombobulates the eugenics buffs Nina and Dr. Darrell. Young Gordon becomes a man, takes a betrothed. His parents – all four of them – have become older and only slightly resigned to their mistakes, each still trying to turn back the hands of time. Sam has taken the reigns from Nina, turning Young Gordon into the epitome of his namesake. Young Gordon becomes a champion sportsman and pilot, and the elder lives vicariously through his son’s life. Nina openly and loudly hates her life at high octane level, spitting out every unfiltered thought in every direction, even riling up the jovial Sam, who finally loses his patience for Nina’s morbid and incessant point of view. It’s all going well for the men-folk in her life, and Nina can’t stand the happiness in the room. Determined to drag her clan to the lower depths of moroseness, she attempts to lie to Young Gordon’s fiancée Madeline, wanting to tell her that Young Gordon will slip into madness and horrid death, having inherited genes of his “father”, knowing of course Young Gordon’s father is not really his father. But Nina is interrupted by Sam, and he conniving is foiled. Young Gordon was her one grand plan and he has been co-opted by Sam, who invites Charles -- slightly decrepit and avowed asexual, and Dr. Darrell -- tanned and looking frozen in time, to Young Gordon’s first rowing tournament. Her plot to lock her clan into her eternal misery failed, Nina resigns herself to Young Gordon’s marriage to Madeline. She also resigns herself to the likelihood that Sam, defect that he may be, will outlive her in good health and blissful ignorance, her opportunity for a higher love in the arms of Dr. Darrell completely vanquished. Young Gordon’s championship combined with Nina’s open campaign against Madeline becomes too much for the gastric-enlarged heart of Sam, who mortally strokes out mid-sentence while celebrating Young Gordon’s championship. Charles and Dr. Darrell rush to the ailing Sam’s aid as Nina stands by in self-absorbed somberness, bored by the events unfolding, but mildly uplifted by the probability of finally disposing of Sam. With Goron out of the way, from now on it’s just Nina and her two suitors, Young Gordon making plans to immediately marry and go on extended leave from the family mansion. Nina’s road seems clear; she now has her unencumbered chance with Dr. Darrell. Aware of the old woman she’s become, and having lost faith in “superior gene pools” and “intellectually-matched love”, Nina chooses matrimony with the faithful and desperate mutt Charles, an old man too, soon in needing of those nursing skills that went unused in her marriage with Sam. Now, sprinkle two parts laughing gas and one part crystal meth on O’Neill’s tale of upper class woe, add in Greg Allen’s masterfully sardonic direction, and the genius-conceived stage pattering of the Neo-Futurists, and we get to witness a seamless theatrical presentation, and real proof to the axiom that tragedy plus 50 years is the true definition of comedy. Strange Interlude was first staged and immediately banned at the beginning of the Great Depression for its casual acceptance of adultery, insanity, abortion, eugenics, prostitute-patronage and casual loafing of the wealthy. O’Neill grew up at a time when almost 25 percent of upper class offspring didn’t know who their daddies were, turning the nation’s courts into the Maury Povich shows of their day. The courts were so clogged full of cases from wealthy men who questioned the paternity of their wives’ children that the U.S. Supreme Court finally stepped in and ruled that all children borne into a marriage were automatically the husband’s provenance. The wording on a couple’s marriage license would determine the parentage on the birth certificate. That Nina Leeds so desperately wants the guarantee of a perfect child reflecting her salad days with Pilot Gordon that she hastily sacrifices Sam’s issue and obtains Dr. Darrell’s better quality genetic material is a reflection of biblical parable and the tabloid ramblings of the Octomom. In her day, Nina Leeds was judged harshly – a selfish slut who simply couldn’t play the hand she had been dealt, like the rest of the slobs. Today, Nina Leeds would not only ”borrow” the male genetic material, but have the option of seriously consider holding on to her girlish figure a while longer and pay a surrogate mother to catch a case of swollen ankles. Not only do we not judge today’s Nina Leeds as she was judged in days’ past -- our private health care insurance industry covers her concept of motherhood at 80 percent.

The first of three intermissions at today’s showing brought a vehement and vocal protest from the balcony from two older gentlemen, who bore an eerily resemblance to Statler & Waldorf of the Muppet Show, hecklers and patron saints to public smart asses the world over. Both men screamed bloody murder, accusing the actors of “butchering” and “destroying” a “great” play, of “betraying” O’Neill’s vision. I thought their rant and rave was part of the overall production, but along with several other audience members they did not return for the start of Act Three. That’s a shame, I’m fairly confident they missed the best use of a Cabbage Patch Doll ever seen on an American stage. Madeline the fiancée was "portrayed" by a blonde Cabbage Patch doll riding the shoulders of the Young Adult Gordon in the eighth and ninth acts. The "aborted fetus" was "portrayed" by a red balloon in the second act. What is the purpose of farce if not to instigate laughter and ridicule? Four adults make and support inanely insane life choices, making a farce of their individual and collective lives and becoming bitter over the choices that they made. Unlike O’Neill’s Sea Plays or The Hairy Ape , the denizens of Strange Interlude have all the resources in the world -- a wealth of options -- and they screw up every step of the way, until they just go plain nuts from watching how they’ve destroyed their own lives. Although I got “the jimmy legs” midway through Act Seven, the potential blood clots were well worth sitting through the almost six-hour interpretation. Seeing the privileged screw up their lives further confirms the cold comfort of money not buying happiness. You can have the best genes since Levi Strauss and still screw up royally. O’Neill and the Neo-Futurists give the gift of schadenfreude for those of us who have watched the ruling class perpetually screw up the natural order of this world. Sometimes there’s just no bailout or stimulus, even for the ruling class. O’Neill’s body of work proves the axiom that none of gets out of (here) alive. Thus, it’s appropriate that Neo-Futurists betrothed young-adult Gordon to Madeline the Cabbage Patch doll. Class not withstanding, we’re all puppets trying to keep the stuffing in us, with varying degrees of failure. With apologies to Friday evening’s Statler & Waldorf, I think Eugene O’Neill was well aware of the absurdity in his creation. After all, he created a long-winded play of upper-class misery that only the upper-class of his time could afford to “enjoy”.

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