by Hazen Cuyler
Before seeing this one-man-show, I’d heard some of the hype and excitement surrounding Strange Interlude produced by Transport Group Theatre Company, directed by Jack Cummings III and performed by David Greenspan. The fact that this show exists is an accomplishment. It’s a six hour Eugene O’Neill play, with eight characters who speak their fragmented thought process throughout each scene. In Transport Group’s production, all eight characters are played by the incredibly talented David Greenspan. During the play, audience members would routinely burst into collective laughter and applause. At each intermission, voices could be heard vaguely describing their growing interest in the show. It is not a perfect production, but one which devoted theatre audiences should experience.
Strange Interlude is a play written in 1923 which both appeared on Broadway and won the Pulitzer in 1928. It follows Nina, whose fiancé is killed in WWI, before they are able to consummate the marriage. She marries another man, Sam, and discovers his family’s history with mental illness and fears passing it down to their child. So she gets an abortion, has a child with another man and pretends it’s Sam’s. The child grows older, never being told who his biological father is.
Here’s where the production’s imperfections begin. I had absolutely no idea that’s what happened after spending nearly six hours watching Strange Interlude.
I’ll get to the most important point first. David Greenspan is a wonderful talent. He’s impressively decorated and seems to have a glowing career as an important solo artist of our generation. He worked on Strange Interlude for four years. Anyone can criticize someone else’s performance. But when a skilled and seasoned artist is onstage, alone, with only himself to talk to, as eight complex individual people, for nearly six hours, it forces one to acknowledge the accomplishment and examine criticism through a slightly more appreciative lens. So, to sum it up, he is a remarkable talent.
Here’s what I found to be the core problematic issue with Strange Interlude.
David Greenspan talks too quickly and the importance of articulation is under-appreciated. The majority of the production feels and sounds like he and the producers were terrified of the show running eight hours instead of a brisk six. The rushed delivery distances us from the reality of time; a circumstance in these characters’ lives. In Strange Interlude, characters speak their fragmented inner thought process alongside their dialogue to other characters. The increased speed and loose articulation challenges our ability to differentiate characters’ dialogue from the spoken thoughts inside their heads. I hoped my ear would adjust to the language and style, like in Shakespeare, and ease me into the world of the play. This never happened.
There are moments of astonishing work throughout. But they erupt and, no matter how badly you wish them to stay, quickly dissipate back into a repetitious rhythm. When you sit through this for six hours it unfortunately becomes very boring. It’s frustrating because Mr. Greenspan is such an immensely talented artist. His talent is palpable. He can be sitting on the floor and you know you’re in the presence of a refined and important artist. But while watching this play, for six hours, I hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening.
So. Why should you see this?
Because it’s a daring accomplishment from one of our great artists, the likes of which you may not see again for many years. Mr. Greenspan is deeply connected to each of O’Neill’s diverse characters and that stays with you long after leaving the theater. The play is not perfect and neither is the production. At times Strange Interlude is frustrating and even boring. But the flashes of truth from Mr. Greenspan, within the simplistic and clean environment sensitively designed by Dane Laffrey, stay with you. It reminds you of theatre’s potential and the capabilities of a dedicated creative spirit.
The ending was beautiful. An amazing piece of melancholic, fragile theatre handling the text with dignity and delicacy. Neither Mr. Greenspan nor the audience wished for the performance to end. And at that moment, neither did I. I could feel the resignation in these characters’ fates. Nina’s layered exhaustion and weariness. Charlie’s eternal longing finally fulfilled after passing beyond desire. It had only just begun for me. After nearly six hours of waiting in a packed theater, it was over. With a raised hand, they were gone. His characters disappeared. A gesture of evaporating elegance. Lights out. A glimpse of greatness and a burst of applause.
Irondale Theater Center – 85 S Oxford St, Brooklyn, NY
Running time: 6 hours (2 Intermissions. 1 30 Minute Dinner Break)
Thru November 18. www.transportgroup.org