REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
2. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Arts Theatre, London, April 5, 1984; STRANGE INTERLUDE, Duke of York's Theatre, London, April 6, 1984.
On two successive nights, April 5 and 6, two plays by Eugene O'Neill opened in London's West End at theaters only a few hundered yards apart. These revivals capped a London theater season more notable for its American than its British drama. With no major new works by Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Peter Nichols, David Storey or Alan Ayckbourn, producers had filled the gap with plays by David Mamet, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets, and Kaufman and Hart. Of all the American revivals, the productions of Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Arts, a small theater club, and Strange Interlude at the Duke of York's, an intimate commercial house, seemed the most courageous. Long Day's Journey had been successfully presented at the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier only twelve years earlier, in a production which was later televised on both sides of the Atlantic; while Strange Interlude, not done in London since its first production there in 1931, belongs to that period of O'Neill's work now generally ignored by practitioners of the contemporary theater.
Long Day's Journey opened quietly in a small-scale production which was generally well received by the critics but was playing to only a handful of spectators a few nights into its brief run. On the other hand, Strange Interlude, with a major film star heading its cast, began its run with much fanfare. Without Glenda Jackson, however, there would have been no revival of the play. It was her long-standing ambition to play Nina Leeds, a part which had intrigued her since she first read it as a girl, that led to this unlikely commercial gamble--a gamble which may pay off, judging from the size of an enthusiastic midweek audience, despite a set of very mixed reviews from London's baffled critics.
The real winners in this case are students and admirers of O'Neill, who are being offered fresh insights into the master's work from the unusual juxtaposition of these two plays. When Nina gathers Charles Marsden, Sam Evans and Ned Darrell around her, calling attention to the fact that they are her men who play for her the roles of father, husband and lover, the spectator who has already been to Long Day's Journey may be forgiven for suddenly wondering which play he is seeing. Nina becomes Mary Tyrone tightening the grasp on her three men, James, Edmund and Jamie, who play their roles as husband, son and--curiously--lover, as the Freudian nightmare of Strange Interlude pre-figures, is transformed into, the Oedipal twists of Long Day's Journey. Jamie's linking of his mother and his whores by way of Mary's hypodermic needle is already there in Charlie's revulsion at the memory of sex with a whore which sullies the purity of his love for his mother. At the center of both plays is a woman searching for but denied fulfillment as she takes on but finally rejects all the archetypal stances of her sex. Nina surrenders her son to another and resigns herself to the peace of a passionless union with Charlie, as Mary, at once shackling her men to her yet isolating herself from them, finds peace at last in a drug-induced trance. What finally separates two plays so similar at the core is a gulf greater than the years between their composition. The pretentiousness of Strange Interlude is replaced by the honesty of Long Day's Journey. What Edmund in Long Day's Journey calls the stammering of his early work becomes the eloquence of the later play. Soap opera gives way to dramatic masterpiece.
A program note to Long Day's Journey by Louis Sheaffer stresses the "inextricable tangle of love and hostility, of compassion and bitter resentment, of accusation and apology, of self-pity and self-hatred" which Sheaffer sees as refuting O'Neill's own words that the play was written with "deep pity and understanding and forgiveness." But it is another program note, by the twenty-three year old director, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, that offers the key to this muted but moving production: "After all is said and done they are a family." Villar-Hauser's actors, unlike most performers who choose to wallow in the characters' most excessive vices, stress their positive virtues. This is a loving family, desperately trying to overcome the overwhelming odds of long-standing weaknesses to give support and hope to one another. Their ultimate failure as a family matters less than the majesty and magnitude of their heroic attempt. Michael Deacon as Jamie and Darlene Johnson as Mary successfully tread the path through their characters' contradictions; but Trevor Martin fails to reveal that essential side of James which forces him, even in his domestic role as father and husband, to rely on the tricks of the larger-than-life romantic thespian. As Edmund, like so many others who have essayed the role, Sean Mathias too frequently offers effeminacy in place of sensitivity. The play is set by Jane Cameron in what is obviously a low-budget yet effective rendering of the claustrophobic interior of the Monte Cristo cottage.
The interior monologues of Strange Interlude work best in a setting which is not realistic, director Keith Hack seems to believe, and his designer, Noytek, has given him a stylized three-sided background of clapboard sky-blue walls on which are painted and projected Georgia O'Keefe-inspired clouds (an influence openly admitted by the designer). Within the clapboard sky various solid-looking back walls represent the play's many settings, the juxtaposition of the solid and the ephemeral complementing the play's attempted movement to its characters' innermost depths. The universality at which the director is obviously aiming, however, is denied by the play itself, which never actually probes beyond the surface of its shallow tale. O'Neill's failure in Strange Interlude is most obvious in the banality of his characters' inner thoughts which do not reveal anything more than an audience of average intelligence would grasp without them.
Despite its long-winded unfolding, the five hours of Strange Interlude seem to pass more quickly than the three and three-quarter hours of Long Day's Journey. This is surely because the spectators are never personally involved in Nina's pain and suffering as they are in the wounding of the Tyrones. The audience follows the intrigues of Strange Interlude as they would view five or six segments of Dallas or Dynasty on their television sets. The author's implications in his odd journey from God the Father to God the Mother back to God the Father, as Nina first rejects father for lover only later to reject lover for substitute father, may be entirely overlooked in a production which offers Strange Interlude purely in terms of entertainment. An audience's only concerns here are what happens next, and will there be time for drinks in the two short intermissions which replace the customary dinner break.
Edward Petherbridge's highly accomplished reading of Charlie Marsden is the key to bringing this outdated dinosaur of a play back to life. O'Neill's tiresome and prissy chorus is invested here with surprising humor. The audience views Nina's trials and tribulations with the same unexpected amusement with which Petherbridge's more than usually detached Charlie sees them. Glenda Jackson, achieving a period look with a Louise Brooks hair-styling, does not disappoint her fans in the marathon role of Nina, despite some uncharacteristic facial tics--the repeated thrust of tongue to upper lip, a seemingly involuntary shudder of the head. The arc from anticipation to resignation is clearly etched in her performance. The wilting of her back as she learns that she must not bear Sam's child is more telling than the spoken thoughts which O'Neill provides her, and the moment of Ned's surrender to her as lover is thrillingly marked as an arm seems to rise of its own accord above her head in a gesture of triumphant fulfillment. Strange Interlude is by no means great drama, but this production reveals it to be surprisingly good theater.
--Albert E. Kalson
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