Lively revival of O'Neill's stormy `Strange Interlude'

Strange Interlude Play by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Keith Hack. Starring Glenda Jackson. Style transcends stylization and histrionic virtuosity carries the day in the venturesome, London-originated revival of ``Strange Interlude,'' at the Nederlander Theatre. Eugene O'Neill called his 1928 psychological endurance test ``the biggest ever, . . . wedding the theme for a novel to the play form in a way that would still leave the play master of the house.''

The mistress of this particular house is Glenda Jackson's Nina Leeds, the neurotically dazzling heroine of the nine-act exercise. Bravura is the inevitable word for Miss Jackson's display of feminine wiles and brilliant technique. The British star heads an accomplished cast, among whose members Edward Petherbridge (the Newman Noggs of ``Nicholas Nickleby'') shines with particular splendor. Mr. Petherbridge's uses of comic diversity may (or may not) amount to more than O'Neill intended. In any case, they are a marvel of perceptive wit.

Under Keith Hack's innovative direction, the continuity of asides and monologues O'Neill used for exposition and commentary have been welded into the dialogue without benefit of special lighting or other devices. Indeed, they are sometimes indistinguishable from the dialogue. The method contributes to the fluidity of the production.

Considered sufficiently sensational in its time to have been banned in Boston, ``Strange Interlude'' has long since been overtaken by the extremes and excesses of a more permissive age. Though long in unfolding, the plot can be summed up as the turbulent and passionate pilgrimage of Nina Leeds and in particular her relationship with three men in her life.

After the young pilot with whom she is in love has been killed in World War I, Nina (now a hospital nurse) becomes promiscuous with several of her soldier-patients. She is rescued by marriage to Sam Evans (James Hazeldine), a callow young go-getter, only to discover from Sam's mother that the family is tainted with insanity. At the mother's insistence, Nina undergoes an abortion and agrees to allow another man secretly to father the child for which Sam yearns.

The rest of ``Strange Interlude'' unfolds Nina's subsequent relationships with her devoted and unsuspecting husband; with Dr. Edmund Darrell (Brian Cox), her partner in the procreative ``biological experiment'' that turns into a prolonged, clandestine affair; and with novelist Charles Marsden, the effete but faithful admirer whose asides, as delivered by Mr. Petherbridge, provide some of the revival's most amusing interludes.

In ``O'Neill, Son and Artist,'' biographer Louis Sheaffer has described Nina as ``one of the author's most fascinating and incredible women.'' Miss Jackson's volatile performance notwithstanding, a 1985 encounter confirms the view. Mr. Sheaffer notes the comparison between Nina and Shaw's Ann Whitefield, the embodiment of the female creative force in ``Man and Superman.'' But Ann ``is all wit, intellect, and verbal grace,'' while Nina involves ``much soul-searching and passionate suffering.'' With a voice that can be harsh or lightly silken and a mercurial manner to match all moods, Miss Jackson explores Nina's complex psyche, from imitative romanticism and obsessive self-absorption to grasping maternalism.

If faithful old-dog Charlie does the most to lighten ``Strange Interlude,'' the play's production is equally dependent on Mr. Cox's desperately torn Darrell and Mr. Hazeldine's cheerfully naive, unfailingly decent Sam. Even though he is the butt of O'Neill's scorn for the materialistic American success story, Sam comes out of it all with his goodwill and generosity intact.

The revival is also helped by Tom Aldredge's Professor Leeds, the father whose mistaken scruples started all the trouble; Elizabeth Lawrence as Sam's mother, who handles the most startling plot turn with conviction; and Caitlin Clarke as young Gordon Evans's (Charley Lang) attractive fianc'ee.

``Strange Interlude'' ranges through an O'Neill catalog of ideas, ironies, and notions, from Freudianism to theological dogma (including his own) and from ethics and morals to literature. A certain amount of derisive laughter at the preview I attended was in response to the play's datedness. But it was also clear that, in a superior performance, ``Strange Interlude'' can still stimulate and entertain. Most spectators stayed the five-hour course (with two intermissions).

Designers Michael and Voytek Levine have visualized the abstract directorial concept with a high-rising architectural structure into which spare incidental d'ecor is introduced. Deirdre Clancy's costumes include some dashing creations for Miss Jackson. Allen Lee Hughes has lighted the production atmospherically, and Benedict Mason composed the incidental music.

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