In the pantheon of social types, there have always been the over-qualified and under-employed. These are the alphas that, never quite launching, end up using their iron wills and formidable charms to hold a kind of captive court. They are destabilizers and yet also controllers. They are powerfully magnetic and always great fodder for playwrights.
Grasping this particular nettle with equal doses of wit, insight and entertaining melodrama is Eugene O'Neill's very long but very engaging Strange Interlude. In this tale of unfulfilled lives and loves, the thwarted alpha is the clever and formidable Nina Leeds, whom O'Neill presents at the defining moment of her fiancé's death. In the throes of grief and frustration, Nina rebels against a needy father, and after a brief period of employment and promiscuity, throws her immense energies into the pursuit of ''happiness'' via marriage and children. Though Nina overcomes all manner of obstacles to achieve her goal, her energies and manipulations are always and forever colored by the loss of her fiancé and the nameless chasm that yawns beneath it.
Strange Interlude: Francesca Faridany
(Photo by Scott Suchman)
Thus, even as she strives for happiness, Nina brings great unhappiness. Is she a heroine or a villain? A victim or a perpetrator? An astute observer of the soul, O'Neill knows that the answer must be ''all of the above.'' Such a damaged alpha will always be obsessed by what could have been, by what survival has necessitated, and by the very sensation of limitation on their powers. Should they be judged for a drive that turns ruinous when caged?
O'Neill thrusts us even deeper into this exploration with the use of Shakespearean-esque asides and mini-soliloquies in which, with a turn of the head or change in intonation, every character reveals their thoughts from moment to moment. Making for great insight and much humor, it also allows for a certain moral complexity: Does it matter what a person thinks if what they do seems to be ''right?'' And what would Nina look like if her thoughts were as secret as they should be? Such fascinating questions remain intact all the way until the final scenes in which O'Neill ups the action but loses this emotional torque. Despite the intense journey, it seems almost as if he simply lost steam and ended it all, whatever it took.
As cerebral and exhausting as this sounds – and at nearly four hours this isn't exactly dinner theater – don't be deterred. Thanks to director Michael Kahn's keen vision, inspired casting, skillful editing and beautiful pacing, the play positively flies. And to be sure, in true O'Neill fashion, the next witty line is never far behind the dire or the deep.
As the driven, indefatigable Nina, Francesca Faridany is absolutely stellar. Rivetingly handsome, extraordinarily expressive and channeling a turbo-charged charisma, Faridany embodies this living, breathing pulsar of a woman for nearly four amazing hours. When Nina stops amid a life she can never quite control and a happiness she can never quite win, to wonder with atheistic cynicism whether God must be a man or woman, Faridany captures with perfect pitch O'Neill's restless, questing soul.
And though not every woman shares Nina's Machiavellian drive or her damage, she speaks with magnificent clarity for all women who rail against limitation, self-imposed or otherwise, and for all who are at a loss to explain the joy and pain of the world. Indeed, everything O'Neill captures in Nina. From her practical view of her promiscuities to her emotional intelligence, it all carries an extraordinary female credibility. How many male playwrights can claim such territory? (And how many now would dare weave an abortion into a plot, let alone leave it free of moralizing or dire consequence?) This alone makes Strange Interlude extraordinary – both for when it was written (in 1928), and for how it resonates today.
In superb counterpoint to the flamboyant Nina is the ubiquitous and resoundingly beta family friend, Charles Marsden. Drawn like a moth to Nina's flame, it is clear that even as he longs to possess her, he would never know what to do with her – at least while she's firing on all pistons. Yet Marsden, eagle-eyed and capable of his own brand of manipulation, emerges as a significant extension of Nina's dead father (played with memorable effectiveness and nuance by Ted van Griethuysen) and an ever-present reminder of society's limits and expectations.
Making the most of his tall, thin stature, Robert Stanton captures beautifully Marsden's wry, self-loathing, utterly American ''voice''; his perfect blend of long-suffering good-humor and lurking edge.
As Nina's love interest, Edmund Darrell, Baylen Thomas transitions interestingly from the rather cardboard-y, buttoned-down doctor who innocently advises Nina to have a child, to the quietly impassioned and finally emotionally bankrupt man who, like Marsden, orbits Nina for decades in the hopes of some kind of permanent collision. Thomas evokes convincingly and touchingly this besotted man, his longing, pining and eventual resignation fully palpable.
Completing the quadrangle is Sam Evans, who Nina marries simply as a means to an end: the elusive ''happiness.'' Though Sam is a thoroughly decent man, he will never be a love match for the volatile, impassioned Nina and, though O'Neill finds a device with which to keep them together, there is a thinness to their relationship. The reality of such a marriage, even with their consuming love for their child, would be rife with a frustration that would breed far more contempt than either displays here. Ted Koch captures the well-meaning, rather oblivious, occasionally self-immolating Sam with enough nuance to make him interesting. Like Faridany with her Nina, Koch brings a certain unpredictability to his Sam, which is effective enough to make one wonder about his inner life perhaps more than O'Neill might expect.
In a small role that provides a vital dramatic bridge, Tana Hicken gives Sam's mother, Mrs. Amos Evans, enough authenticity and emotional depth to carry her message, silly as it might look on paper, with the power it needs to change the direction of Nina's life (again). Jake Land as Nina's son, Gordon, as a boy; Joe Short as Gordon the young man; and Rachel Spencer Hewitt as his fiancée Madeline Arnold, acquit themselves well in their smaller roles amid the adult machinations.
Still, Strange Interlude belongs to Nina and the men (some living, some dead) who haunt her life and psyche. And this is where O'Neill endures. Here is the American playwright who has captured lives unfulfilled, the troubled soul that can control all but itself, and the fleeting but melancholy power of passionate love.