Known as American dramatist Eugene O’Neill’s 1923 ‘problem play,’ Strange Interlude originally ran for over four hours, sometimes with a strategic dinner break. Its themes of infidelity, inconstancy and immorality led to its widespread censorship; despite this, the play won the Pulitzer Award in 1928 and has generally been popular with audiences.
It’s not hard to credit both sides of that coin. A sweeping melodrama, Strange Interlude follows 25 years in the life of a troubled Nina Leeds; the loss of her first love to war; her schism with her academic father; her marriage to a simple, pitiable man and subsequent affair with his best friend, from which a child is born. If it sounds soapy, spare a thought for O’Neill’s own life. Born in a Broadway hotel in 1888, O’Neill careened from failed marriages to sanatoriums, with some suicide attempts and a lifelong addiction to alcohol thrown in for spice. He once said that drama’s only purpose was to tackle man’s “struggle … with himself, his own past,” and certainly, he had some curly horns to wrap his mitts around.
In Simon Stone’s adaptation, the compelling Emily Barclay shrugs on Nina’s heavy pathos alongside Toby Schmitz as physician lover Ned Darrell and Toby Truslove her hapless husband, Sam. With Stone (The Wild Duck) having taken on the re-write and direction, it’s very much his beast. What he does best is immediately evident. The language is transformed into an easy, everydayman patois; laughs are doled out generously (mostly courtesy of Truslove); all with an episodic, TV-esque rhythm that means while this version is still long-ish, it’s never boring. A spare set by Robert Cousins and chino-heavy hipster fashion courtesy of costumer Mel Page brings the aesthetic very much into 2012.
But it probably wasn’t’ stamped a ‘problem play’ for no reason. The revelation of a hereditary ‘madness’ in Sam’s family is just as hard-to-swallow today as then (some critics cheekily dubbing the playwright ‘Eugenics’ O’Neill in response to this evident obsession), and by leaning heavy on the humour, some of the play’s implicit bleakness and gravity is lost. The cast seem to sense this; in the life-cycle of the characters’ continuum, they are precocious infants, growing into their skin. It’s a strange interlude indeed, but a persuasive one.
Until Jun 17, Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills, $42-62, 9699 3444, belvoir.com.au