STRANGE INTERLUDE: Strange, but True

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It sounds impossible.

And it SHOULD be impossible.

But David Greenspan is proving that it isn’t.

He’s decided to memorize a Eugene O’Neill play and perform all the roles himself.

This would be an impressive achievement even if Greenspan were “only” tackling IN THE ZONE, EXORCISM or THE DREAMY KID – all one-acters that O’Neill wrote early in his career.

However, Greenspan proved to us six years ago that he can memorize a full-length play, as he then did with THE PATSY. This was a 1925 commercial comedy about a young woman who wants to win the man her sister once discarded. There Greenspan adopted a half-dozen different voices to represent all six characters.

Who knew that that would turn out to be a mere tune-up for what he’s now achieved? Greenspan has memorized all of STRANGE INTERLUDE, the 1928 play that became the third of O’Neill’s four Pulitzer Prize-winners – and one that weighs in at more than five hours. Considering that the show starts at 5 p.m. and concludes at 10:45 p.m., let’s call it a long afternoon’s journey into night.

This one has nine characters, but Greenspan has had to find two different voices for each. For the conceit of the play is that oftentimes a character talks to another then abruptly turns to the audience and says what he or she is REALLY thinking. So a person’s regular voice isn’t necessarily the same as the inner voice.

All this can be quite confusing, and theatergoers who’ve attended have cautioned their friends to read the play or at least a detailed synopsis before sauntering out to Brooklyn, no less. That’s where Greenspan is performing in what once was a church but now is a usually unused building.

You’re shaking your head already and saying “Who has the time to read a play that long?”

Okay, then don’t.

Instead, watch the 1934 film version, which is available complete on YouTube. It’s only an hour and 49 minutes long.

You’ll then not only understand what’s going on and whom Greenspan is enacting, but you’ll also be intrigued to see what Hollywood didn’t dare tackle – especially an abortion.

That happens to Nina, whom we meet years before just after she’s found that her fiancé Gordon has been killed during World War I. Charles hopes that this will open the field for him, but Nina sees him only as “Good ol’ Charlie” – the best friend who could only at best hope to be a best man if she ever were to marry.

In fact, she does – to Sam, whom she doesn’t really love. But she wants to have a child. Then why does she have an abortion? Get thee to Brooklyn to find out.

Needless to say, Greenspan doesn’t do STRANGE INTERLUDE straight through. There are two 15-minute intermissions as well as a half-hour dinner break. You’ll need all of them.

The show’s length is not the only issue. Sad to say, you’ll be relegated to armless padded chairs where you’ll have to pull in your legs to make sure your knees don’t touch the person who’s all too close to you on each side. So those breaks in the action will provide some relief.

Greenspan neither hesitates nor falters for any line. He knows exactly what he should be doing every moment. With a memory such as this, could his SAT Verbal scores have been any less than 800? Director Jack Cummings III must have helped in blocking where Greenspan should be and when he should turn to make matters as clear as possible.

And to think that Greenspan has done all this work for a show that only runs until November 18th. That’s probably all the traffic will bear, although it should be noted that when STRANGE INTERLUDE was first presented, it ran for 17 months, making it the fourth-longest-running play of its season. That tells us a great deal about audiences back then who were willing to meet these extraordinary demands on their time. Seeing what was on Eugene O’Neill’s mind was well worth any inconvenience.

How much of a sensation was STRANGE INTERLUDE? Morrie Ryskind, when writing the screenplay of ANIMAL CRACKERS — the 1930 film of the 1928 Broadway hit — had Groucho Marx tell a pair of women “If I were Eugene O’Neill, I could tell you what I really think of you two. You know, you’re very fortunate that the Theatre Guild isn’t putting this on — and so is the Guild. Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” And then he turned to the audience and delivered a soliloquy.

(What does this tell you about Broadway’s nationwide profile back then? Could you imagine a comedy film today mentioning faux dialogue and the concept behind THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, even with its being this century’s longest-running play?

The Transport Group production has pre-prepared dinners on hand for $17 for it believes that “the limited meal break does not allow time for you to grab food off-site.” Come on, I thought, we’re in the bustling Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, so there must be some place where one can grab a quick bite.

Indeed there is: Not Ray’s Pizza, as it’s fancifully called, about a four-minute walk from the theater. How much time does one need to devour a slice or two? Not only is the pizza excellent, but the canned drinks are magnificently refrigerated – well, at least to the cool temperature that I enjoy my sodas.

Funny; back in 1929 when STRANGE INTERLUDE planned to try out in Boston, Mayor Malcolm Nichols showed why the expression “Banned in Boston” became a cliché: Nichols wouldn’t have such “filth” in his city, so the producer booked a theater 11 miles away in Quincy where the mayor had no jurisdiction.

Well, you know what controversy does; now everyone had to see STRANGE INTERLUDE. Many critics came from far and wide to see what the fuss was about. On their dinner breaks between parts one and two, they went to the closest nearby restaurant.

It belonged to a man named Howard Johnson.

Some reported in their reviews how much they liked his food and ice cream. Soon the place became wildly popular, thus setting into motion Johnson’s nationwide chain that was popular for almost a half-century.

Who knows? Maybe David Greenspan’s STRANGE INTERLUDE will do the same for Not Ray’s Pizza at 694 Fulton Street.