New York — ``Strange Interlude'' in a major Broadway revival? Not a likely prospect. All the white elephants associated with Eugene O'Neill march through its many pages: It's long, talky, melodramatic, and sometimes awkward.
Yet it has come back to Broadway, in an ambitious British production running at the Nederlander Theatre through May 5. No less a star then Glenda Jackson heads the cast, which includes both Britons and Americans.
It was taken across the Atlantic after success in London, and its presence reflects the faith of O'Neill stalwarts in the continuing impact of his best plays, which forge ahead by sheer emotional strength no matter how many white elephants try to topple them.
The chronicle of a woman's troubled relationships with three men, ``Strange Interlude'' is perhaps the most experimental of O'Neill's works, with the characters speaking their thoughts in long monologues that aren't heard by the others onstage. Although it won a Pulitzer Prize for the playwright in 1928 and became his biggest hit to date, it had trouble with censors (Boston banned it) and intimidated would-be producers with its odd structure. Its only major American revival has been an Actors' Studio production in 1963.
So why resurrect it now? I asked Brian Cox, who won the British Drama Academy Award for his portrayal of the heroine's lover, and is now on Broadway in the same role.
``O'Neill was the first of the American modernists,'' he said, scrunched into a seat at the Nederlander during a rehearsal break. ``The joy of the play is its absolute sweep. The strength of the play is the speed with which it comes off the page. All the effects are of accumulation and culmination -- of things building up and up and up.''
He finds it an exciting and playable work that deserves more visibility and a better reputation than it has. As for the notorious thought-speeches, they're no problem when vigorously handled.
``O'Neill caught onto something that's perfectly natural and free,'' the actor maintains. ``It's just when you see it written down that it looks monumental. The challenge is to cross realism, naturalism, and stylization without showing the joints between them. What helps is that everything's part of the story. The narrative is always sustained, even in the thoughts. Nothing is extra. The play never stops traveling onward. It only slows when the characters are a bit older and aware of their own idiocies. When they're younger they drive with the speed of youth.''
Another value of the play, Cox suggests, is its sense of irony. ``It has fissures of irony running all the way through it,'' he says. ``Irony has been slightly dying out of American theater and culture -- and in the past, `Strange Interlude' has seemed a bit turgid and heavy because people don't play that level of it. But since most of us in this production are European, we understand those levels of the play readily.''
Does this mean European actors can play O'Neill better than his own compatriots? In some ways the answer is yes, Cox feels. ``We're grounded in things that have a classical basis, as this play does,'' he says. ``American actors feel a sense of awe regarding O'Neill, but we see him in the line of classical theater writers like Chekhov and Ibsen. His place is firm and powerful, but we're not overawed by it. He's a theatrical author who writes theatrical devices brilliantly.''
There are things for Britons to learn from American acting, too, however, and Cox acknowledges that the ``Strange Interlude'' production has been improved by the American cast members who have joined it on Broadway -- and by his own exposure to more American theater during his New York stay.
``The production is now drawn with finer lines than when we opened in London,'' he says. ``It's more precise. The speed of delivery is greater, and we can get a move on more readily. I've learned that things are spoken very fast in America, and we've adopted some of that. The great strength of American actors is the very implicit quality of their work. Actors here don't point at themselves to announce, `I am doing this now,' which we English actors tend to do. There's a remarkable truth to American acting.''
Cox's first stop after ``Strange Interlude'' will be another New York stage, the Public Theater, where he will re-create his Olivier Award-winning performance in ``Rat in the Skull,'' a play about the conflict in Northern Ireland. He has great respect for organizations such as the Public Theater that venture into commercially risky waters, since he feels it's difficult for important new work to emerge in the atmosphere of ``paranoia and hype'' that typifies the big-money Broadway scene.
He notes that England's theater is nourished and sustained partly by subsidized stages, pointing out that the ``Strange Interlude'' revival itself is reaching Broadway only after proving itself in the West End -- where, ironically, it played before largely American audiences, due mainly to the current state of the British pound vs. the United States dollar.
``With our subsidized houses,'' says Cox, ``we can work outside the horrendous Broadway-type system to a degree, and that feeds into the commercial theater as well, which gets a bit more daring. `Strange Interlude' was a gamble we were able to take, and it paid off. I think we'll have provided a service if we can bring this American classic back to the repertory.''