`Strange Interlude' as three-part TV drama. `American Playhouse' launches its 7th season

Strange Interlude PBS, Monday-Wednesday, 9-10:30 p.m. Stars: Glenda Jackson, Rosemary Harris, Ken Howard, David Dukes, Edward Petherbridge, Kenneth Brannagh. Adapted for television from the Eugene O'Neill play by Robert Enders. Producer: Philip Barry. Director: Herbert Wise. Executive producer of American Playhouse: Lindsay Law. The seventh season of ``American Playhouse'' opens boldly with a three-part, 4-hour production of a seldom-seen Eugene O'Neill Pulitzer-winning classic, ``Strange Interlude.''

It is seldom seen because it is difficult to produce, direct, act - and, I fear, to sit through.

``Interlude'' spans a period of 25 years in the life of Nina, from her early regrets about never consummating her love affair with a pilot killed in the World War, through marriage, love affairs, children, a whole series of complex relationships, and finally her embittered widowhood.

If one looks for contemporary relevance in the plot, it might be found in the search of today's women for self-fulfillment. But most viewers will see greater parallels between this drama and the convoluted plots of ``Dallas,'' ``Dynasty,'' and ``Knots Landing.''

In other plays O'Neill offers not only the tortured emotional lives of his main characters but also universal themes such as the tragedy of alcoholism and drug addiction. In ``Strange Interlude,'' the underlying theme is the destructiveness of hereditary insanity - a condition to take at face value today and an overly simplistic motivation for much of the action.

The device of having characters speak their thoughts wasn't new when O'Neill first used it; now it seems more reminiscent of a ``Saturday Night Live'' comic routine than one could wish for in a serious drama. In this production, however, it is handled straightforwardly, and the performers manage not to trip over their subconscious.

On the whole, the acting is impeccable. Glenda Jackson and Edward Petherbridge repeat the superb performances that won them acclaim - and prizes - in the 1984 London production of this play. If Ken Howard seems a bit long in the tooth for his role as Sam in the early years, he ages effectively as time goes by.

True, there's a lot of declamation and speech-spouting rather than audience-involving action. But the intermittently superb writing of ``Strange Interlude'' creeps up on you and, before you realize it, holds you enthralled in its daring sweep.

The play suffers from the fact that, at this moment in time, it falls into a temporary chasm between period oddity and contemporary relevance. Maybe it needs about 20 more years of aging.

But meantime, if you can manage to persevere through the opening 90-minute exposition, ``Strange Interlude'' can be viewed with pleasure as a glorious acting fest and as a fascinating example of the work of one of America's greatest playwrights.

The second and third segments of ``Strange Interlude'' air on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, starting Feb. 3, ``American Playhouse'' moves to Wednesdays, where it will continue cementing its place as the most innovative producer of high-quality drama on television, with such programming as ``The Trial of Bernhard Goetz,'' ``A Sunday in the Park with George,'' and ``Long Day's Journey Into Night.''

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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