Washington’s theater companies are nothing if not unpredictable, and they’ve put any number of unlikely things on their stages over the past few years. But who’d have predicted a season that, among other oddities, finds Eugene O’Neill getting bigger laughs than Noel Coward?
It’s happening, even if nobody intended it. No small measure of the credit for this remarkable state of affairs goes to Kirk Jackson, adapter-director of Washington Shakespeare Company’s whip-smart staging of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude—though perhaps some responsibility should be reserved for John Going, who’s made an unfortunate hash of Coward’s thin-to-begin-with Hay Fever at Olney Theatre. A legendarily unplayable seven-hour horror in its original form, Interlude clocks in at something like three-and-a-half hours at WSC, and Jackson and his nervy cast make short, taut work of that length. Hay Fever, by contrast, is a slick, brittle Britcom that, staged with any wit at all, ought to have ’em howling within minutes; at Olney, it’ll take mere seconds for the most casual of Coward fans to realize how wrong Going and his hapless ensemble have gotten it.
Packed with family skeletons, fatal attractions, forbidden abortions, and more Freudian overtones than you could shake a cigar at, Strange Interlude resembles nothing so much as a particularly juicy episode of Dynasty, though O’Neill would hardly have enjoyed the irony. As in his greater plays—think A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Mourning Becomes Electra—the grand old man is writing passionately here about the awful things life does to us and the profound courage a few of us find ourselves capable of summoning in response.
It’s the play’s ungainly experiments in form, mostly, that steer it into camp territory, and it’s the way Jackson has built his own experiments on top of O’Neill’s that steers WSC’s production back toward triumph. Among other things, the playwright wanted to get at the idea that we wear masks of one kind or another even in our most intimate relationships, so his characters are forever leaping from simple dialogue pleasantries (not to mention more fraught exchanges) to long monologues about their real feelings, then leaping back to pleasantries without a pause for breath. This is Hamlet with four Hamlets, each more neurotic and talkative than the last.
Chief among them is Nina Leeds, an outsized (anti)heroine who occupies a spot on the O’Neill spectrum roughly midway between Electra’s harsh, implacable Lavinia and Moon’s utterly self-aware, exquisitely selfless Josie. Daughter of a class-conscious coward, lover of a local athletic hero lost to war, beloved of three radically different men, she’s immensely vital, an epic figure driven over a span of decades by events and emotions as complex and tragic as those that drive Lear. Nina, when you stop to think about it, is the sort of character that Katharine Hepburn adored playing, and you might find yourself wishing that Hepburn’s star had risen early enough for her to have beaten Norma Shearer to the 1932 film version.
Not that Kate Norris’ fine, fierce performance at WSC leaves a great deal to wish for. Magnetic, as the script insists Nina be, and strikingly beautiful in Edu. Bernardino’s chic period costumes, Norris is a study in unshakable confidence and rock-solid technique. One sixth-act moment, a tense reunion that puts Nina in a room with the three men who orbit her elliptically throughout the play like so many comets, unfolds like a fraught and funny four-step that dances always on the edge of disaster. Norris leads the step with reckless abandon, punctuating her exit with an exultant laugh and a toss of her head.
Nina is not the play, though; nor is Norris. Charles Marsden, the effete, acerbic novelist who thinks he wants to marry Nina—we know he just wants to mother her, the poor repressed sissy—gets nearly as much of O’Neill’s attention, along with some of his best writing (not all of which was meant to be spoken, as it happens; among Jackson’s salutary inventions is one that has characters speaking aloud O’Neill’s fine-grained assessments of their personalities, along with staging directions and set descriptions that, when you listen, say as much about people as about place).
John Emmert gives Marsden both a comically waspish air and an aura of real dignity, having mastered (like Norris) an impressive range of emotional tones. O’Neill calls for manipulativeness, contempt, a sharp, fastidious superiority, and a kind of exasperated bewilderment, among quite a few other attitudes, and Emmert strikes each one dead-on, building layer by layer a characterization that wholly avoids the simple, hateful stereotype Marsden could too easily become; what he creates is at once understatedly poignant and unforgettably individual, possibly the signal performance among the many I’ve seen him give.
Jonathon Church is the picture of opaque good-heartedness as Sam, the sweetly ineffectual man Nina marries (and deceives) out of pity; the sacrifices she keeps making for his happiness will inevitably seem unlikely to modern audiences, but Church’s sheer warmth and affability keep the proceedings from looking utterly ludicrous.
Patrick Sweetman, as the doctor whose child Nina bears when she can’t bear Sam’s, may initially seem a less thoughtful actor because of the clipped delivery he affects: It’s a diagnostician’s voice, cool, efficiently rapid, nearly emotionless at times. But watch carefully, and you realize that it’s Jackson at work again. (The key line is Nina’s: “I like him because he’s so inhuman.”) The fact is, of course, that he’s all too human under that intellectual detachment; here and there Sweetman pulls back, slowing down for an instant, lingering over a moment of sadness or hurt, revealing flashes of the man behind the mind.
Good as these four are, though, it’s Jackson’s splendid structural work that makes the show. He’s cut and shaped efficiently, and he sets a punishing pace; Norris and the others burn through O’Neill’s high-flying language at such speeds that the audience watches half thrilled, half terrified of a crash. But the director’s chief inspiration lies in his understanding that those endlessly talky asides are pure fat—that what’s essential about the central foursome, what’s crucial in what they’re constantly saying about themselves, can be put across in other ways.
So monologues overlap and twine together; characters talk over and around each other, not hearing much besides the noise in their own heads—and not seeming to really listen to that. Great swaths of text become so much white noise, hurled into the air with the same feverish energy as more important dialogue, punctuated here and there by phrases that leap out to strike the ear. It’s not just an efficient and expedient conceit; it becomes revealing, a modernist’s take on the reasons behind the reasons for the outrageous complexities of the plot.
True, it’s still a potboiler of a show, and it stays too overheated for anything as fragile as profundity to emerge. But as the play careens toward its surprisingly affecting conclusion, it assumes something like tragic authority. O’Neill may have been working a little too hard in Strange Interlude, but Jackson and company work smart, and it’s their efforts that make the difference here.
From the moment that Jerry Richardson and Tricia McCauley open their mouths at Olney Theatre, you know that Hay Fever is going to be about as appealing as a sinus infection. Flat American noises trip hard on the heels of the ripe vowels that spell “British” in the overactor’s lexicon, and the only thing broader than the accents is John Going’s direction, which keeps the cast working so hard you’re surprised they don’t keel over from the exertion.
Richardson and McCauley are Simon and Sorel Bliss, the badly behaved offspring of strenuously bohemian parents who aren’t especially considerate themselves. Mother Judith (Patricia Hodges) is a retired actress who keeps playing life as though it were a star vehicle written just for her; father David (Ross Bickell) writes novels, reads the drafts at the table, and roars at anyone who dares to criticize. The children have no discernible accomplishments whatsoever, though, like their parents, they act as though creativity were a blanket license for pert obnoxiousness. All of them have invited prospective paramours to their country house for the weekend, and (surprise!) none of them have told the others. Hilarity, or a strained facsimile thereof, ensues as each family member flirts with another’s guest in the pursuit of the high drama they’re all addicted to.
It’s usually understatement that makes Coward’s comedies work, but you can imagine a director worrying that a trifle like Hay Fever would disappear entirely; the Blisses’ “shocking” behavior will seem mildly startling at best to anyone under the age of 80, and the writing, though a handful of witticisms still crackle, is hardly top-drawer work for the author of Private Lives and Blithe Spirit. (“Would you lean on the piano in an attentive attitude?” Judith asks her boxer swain sweetly as she prepares to play.) So Going opts for bigger, louder, more at every turn, milking a never-ending string of sight gags (an overpacked suitcase, a door slammed in guests’ faces, a clumsy eater’s efforts at breakfast) long after they’ve stopped being funny.
The Blisses keep using the word “slapdash,” and it’s the apt word for so much about this production: James Wolk’s summer-stock set, the uninspired effects (pallid lightning flashes accompany a desultory attempt at onstage rain), even Jim Alford’s costumes, an uneven assortment that ranges from Judith’s inspired green velvet to a hideous yellow-and-brown houri get-up that leaves Peggy Yates’ Myra Arundel looking like a turbaned banana split. Only Bickell (as relatively reserved Papa Bliss) and David Staller (sublimely uncomfortable as a diplomat out of his depth) escape with dignity intact. You won’t quite be able to understand why the former has anything to do with his hideous kin—and you’ll want to flee long before the latter finally summons the resolve. CP