Groucho didn't take long to poke fun at Eugene O'Neill's semi-experimental epic Strange Interlude, which was first staged on Broadway in 1928. In the Marx Brothers' movie Animal Crackers (1930), Groucho's manic Captain Spaulding has a sudden, most peculiar turn. "Pardon me while I have a strange interlude," he cries, and promptly launches into a ludicrous "interior monologue," veering between corny semi-poetical musings and wild insults about his lady-companions.
The allusion is obscure for most people these days because – in the U.K., at least – it's once in a blue moon that anyone risks staging O’Neill’s decades-spanning saga, though London’s National Theatre has now taken up the challenge.
The subject matter of Strange Interlude is not what’s off-putting. Indeed, it probably seemed quite racy in its time. The female protagonist Nina’s young beau has been killed in WWI, before the two of them could consummate their passion. She subsequently goes somewhat crazy, leaving her stuffy father’s household to nurse and – we glean – sexually gratify hospitalized soldiers. She later marries a benign fool because she wants a baby, but ends up asking a doctor-friend to get her pregnant, which, in turn, leads to an obsessive affair.
En route, O’Neill certainly raises some significant issues, including mourning and emotional fixations, and sexual repression versus morally debatable rule breaking. The big drawback is that he endlessly inserts – into what is mostly unremarkable dialogue – endless asides, so all the characters express their private thoughts. Well, a small piece of their mind might have been fine, but this is a wearisome running commentary. All too often, this play alternates between banalities and bouts of exclamations that sound frightfully close to old-school melodrama.
It would take very little – as Groucho realized – to replay this as risible. On press night at the NT, it was hard not to wonder what farceur Michael Frayn, sitting a few rows back, was making of the evening.
Besides paring the script down to under three-and-a-half hours, director Simon Godwin’s production has some notable strengths. The revolving sets – unusual for the Lyttelton auditorium – are spectacularly designed by Soutra Gilmour. Rolling slowly into view comes a claustrophobic Art Nouveau townhouse; then a rustic homestead and big, scruffy sunrooms; the glass and marble of chic of a Park Avenue apartment; and an impossibly huge yacht, swirling on some oceanic eddy.
Meanwhile, the cast increasingly hit their stride. Anne-Marie Duff’s central performance as Nina is sure-footed if not dazzling – pale and gaunt with the occasional flash of a girlish smile. As her doctor-lover, excellent Darren Pettie (a U.S. import courtesy of Equity) is relaxed and magnetic, with ardour supplanting his professional cool. Touchingly, Jason Watkins never caricatures her spouse as a clown. Meanwhile, playing Charles – her buttoned-up admirer who watches from the sidelines – Charles Edwards brilliantly finds and treads the play’s fine line between tragedy and comedy. Flicking nimbly between dialogue and inner monologue, he barely interrupts his impeccably genteel small talk to mutter with fuming jealousy under his breath.