By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Greg Allen
At the Goodman Theatre
As Part of “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century
Three performances only!
March 6 – 8, 2009
The Neo-Futurists, Greg Allen’s acclaimed Chicago off-Loop theater troupe and “one of the most imaginative experimental theater ensembles in the country” (The Economist), brought the Goodman Theatre’s 21st century Exploration of Eugene O’Neill to a triumphant close in 2009. With a five-person all-Chicago cast led by Merrie Greenfield as Nina Leeds, Allen presented his outrageous new interpretation of all 9 acts, six hours, and 350 pages of O’Neill’s mammoth play for 1,200 people in three performances at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre.
Strange Interlude is the story of Nina Leeds and her three lovers, whom she manipulates to great comic/tragic ends. This is the play where O’Neill had the “brilliant” idea to have his characters speak their inner thoughts directly to the audience. This rarely produced Freudian gem has not been seen since the 1980’s, for good reason: no director in his right mind would take this on. Therefore it was the perfect task for Greg Allen. Allen used his unique blend of non-illusory, interactive performance to explore O’Neill’s longest and most preposterous play and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
2009 Orgie Theatre Award for the Goodman Theatre’s “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century” for hosting exciting work from theatres around the world as well as the local Neo-Futurists’ bold rendition of Strange Interlude
If anyone could pull off a post-modern deconstruction of Strange Interlude, it’s the Neo-Futurists, who did a wonderful show a few years back consisting of the final two minutes of every Ibsen play. … a great deal of it was very funny, with the audience laughing so much at times that the actors had to pause in delivering their lines. The humor went beyond spoofing O’Neill, incorporating some surprising bits of physical humor. What’s really impressive is that the actors and the audience were able to keep up the laughter for almost six hours.
—The Huffington Post
Strange Interlude was the only Goodman show I’ve ever seen during which an audience member actually shouted back at the stage. … Director Greg Allen’s metadramatics genuinely illuminated the play—and its writer. Pointing out the excesses of the passions and emotions in the play didn’t, ipso facto, negate or spoil them. In fact, by giving the audience permission to laugh at all the breathy subtext and emotional excesses, the production communicated some aspects of O’Neill and his legacy more directly and honestly than ordinary, stilted playing. Certainly, anyone who sees this show will feel like they now know this play—its needs, its assumptions and its tricks—for the rest of his or her life. And that was no small feat. … Some scenes, including an act spoken into microphones by actors sitting around a table, come with quirks but also lazer-like thematic incision. And the multifarious opportunities for humor–everything from a character played by a puppet to chairs thrown on the stage in mockery of the stage directions-often result in big, full laughs that resonate on many levels. … It is a fascinating experiment mounted on an otherwise impossible-to-produce play. It is formatively sophisticated and performed by a hard-working, deeply committed cast of five–Dempsey, Dean Evans, Merrie Greenfield, Jermey Sher and Brennan Buhl. They should be proud of what they pull off here.
—Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune
This was the best production I’ve ever seen of anything. It was 5 hours of performance and it was totally flawless. The perfect conspiracy of storytelling: acted with meticulous alchemy, and embodied with such big-hearted, open-armed precision that if it weren’t so utterly, gleefully earth-bound, its soaring comic genius would have embraced the whole audience and lifted us into the sky.
This is what happens when artists give themselves permission to be better than you ever thought possible. When a whole room sings together, when a whole room wills a doll to life, wills a man to femininity, wills adverbs into arguments, wills comedy into tragedy, wills silence among chaos, wills structure into freedom and pure joy.
Every performance was pitch-perfect. Every emotion utterly felt, every flicker shared. Imagine a magician explaining the trick to you while doing it and still being flabbergasted. This is the essence of the theater. Congratulations to Greg Allen, Joe Dempsey, Dean Evans, Merrie Greenfield, Jeremy Sher, Brennan Buhl and everyone involved in this perfect production: Thank you.
Strange Interlude, with its heavy Freudian overtones, undertones and half-tones, its thick veneer of psycho-sexual dysfunction and its unrelenting obsessiveness, is often described as “unplayable,” and gets only rare revivals. … The farce often resolved itself into something richer. And as with all theater marathons, a certain crazy admiration developed. The cast was remarkable, with three months of rehearsal culminating in three grueling performances by Merrie Greenfield, Joe Dempsey, Brennan Buhl, Jeremy Sher and Dean Evans. And director Greg Allen’s mix of adoration and ridicule was palpable.
—The Chicago Sun-Times
Leave it to The Neo-Futurists to take nine acts, five actors and one scene stealing Cabbage Patch doll and give us a production that was nothing short of brilliant.
Greg Allen’s interpretation of Strange Interlude was so clever and so fresh that I literally enjoyed every single minute. And here was the charm: every act in the show had its own specific set of rules. … Each time it was something completely new and completely fabulous; my favorite being the act where the actors said no lines at all, they only spoke their directions and descriptions. O’Neill crammed so much into those usually unspoken lines that even without a word of actual dialogue, you knew exactly what was going on in the scene.
And let’s talk about the acting. Dear. Lord. Allen couldn’t have cast this show any better if he tried. Brennan Buhl, Joe Dempsey, Dean Evans, Merrie Greenfield and Jeremy Sher were simply amazing. Usually when I see a play, an actor or two will really stand out to me, but these five actors worked so well together as an ensemble that they all (somehow!) equally knocked my socks off. And the fact that one of the characters was portrayed by a Cabbage Patch doll (brilliantly played by three of the actors) might have been one of the funniest things I have ever seen on a stage. Ever.
The Neo-Futurists have always been known for putting on amazing work, but this show, – simply put – was genius. By taking such a bold risk in attacking a five-hour long show, they gave Chicago three of the best nights of theater it will ever see. And though it might not have been everyone’s cup of tea (like the older gentleman who dramatically stormed out in the middle of Act Two); for the remaining 99% of us, it was the experience of a lifetime.
[Greg Allen] tackled the whole work, and he tackled its magnificent theatricality by making it even more theatrical.
—Sid Smith, The Chicago Tribune
In true Neo-Futurist fashion, Allen’s adaptation took the play completely apart and then put it back together in ways that a lot of audience members found shocking. In fact hecklers attempted to disrupt the first two performances, shouting “Why are you butchering this play?” and “You don’t know how to do O’Neill!” Yet at the end of Saturdays night’s show there was a standing ovation. … We loved it. By magnifying O’Neill’s relentless artificiality, Allen and crew paradoxically also showed his humanity and tenderness. It’s heartening to see that even in our jaded age, an evening at the theater can be this engaging (and funny and profound).
This particular production included the best symbolic rendering of an abortion I have ever seen on stage: Nina ends a pregnancy when her mother-in-law removes a helium-inflated red balloon from beneath her powder-blue cardigan, holds its mouth open so that the leaking gas squeaks pitiably, and then releases the balloon so that it jets to land on stage right in a tragicomic trajectory. While funny, it also effectively communicates the nature of the procedure: not evil, but sad. …
It is consistent with the entire Neo experience that as the first intermission began, someone shouted from the balcony, “Why are you doing this to this play? This is not O’Neill! This is a travesty!” … The world should contain more such travesties.
—The Feminist Review
Five hours of live theater I won’t soon forget. … What can I really say about the Neo-Futurist staging of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude except that it’s brilliant? Well, quite a few things, actually. I could talk about the man who stalked out screaming at director Greg Allen that he “hates Eugene O’Neill” or the seventh-act stretch or of an entire act reduced to three lines of dialogue or the ingenious use made of a rubber ball, a red balloon, and a Cabbage Patch doll (not all in the same scene, of course).
On Sunday afternoon (and evening) I had an experience. I got to see the Neo-Futurists do O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, all 5-hours-of-stage-time-plus-two-intermissions-and-a-dinner-break of it. And I am so glad I did. … It. Was. Amazing. … This was not a wholescale demolition of Eugene O’Neill’s genius. It was definitely playful and irreverent, but it did have the genuine goal of illustrating O’Neill’s ideas and themes–the way people go wrong when they try to maniuplate the lives of others, the crushing loneliness of lying to everyone around you, and the grinding boredom of trying to be someone else. By recognizing how ridiculous a lot of O’Neill’s theatrical devices and plot twists are, though, the production seduces the audience with laughter, only to sneak the moving stuff in bit by bit. Somehow, it continues to walk that thin line, and be both hilarious and moving up to the end.
There were huge laughs in the show–each character reacting to their endless, physically impossible character descriptions, one characters repeated howls as he remembers his first time having sex (of course with a prostitute), a hilarious sex scene between a man and a Cabbage Patch doll. But there was also a lot that was genuinely, surprisingly moving–the fifth act, consisting almost entirely of the stage directions, and the sixth, virtually all the asides, performed by the actors at microphones, picked out of the dark by a spotlight, were both shockingly moving.
So yes, I laughed, I cried, I had to pee pretty badly at each intermission. And I hope that they manage to arrange a way for the production to return. If they do, GO. You’ll probably never experience anything else quite like it, and there’s a decent chance you’ll love it.
—On Chicago Theater
This is an extraordinary event. … I am having a wonderful time. …
I never, ever give standing ovations, but did so tonight. It took some effort to stand, but I felt it was worth it. … Brennan Buhl, Joe Dempsey, Dean Evans, Merrie Greenfield, and Jeremy Sher are my new heroes.
The Neo Futurists take what may be O’Neill’s most gut-wrenching work and make dry hijinks from inception to final bow. … Sprinkle two parts laughing gas and one part crystal meth on O’Neill’s tale of upper class woe, add in Greg Allen’s masterfully sardonic direction, and the genius-conceived stage pattering of the Neo-Futurists, and we get to witness a seamless theatrical presentation, and real proof to the axiom that tragedy plus 50 years is the true definition of comedy. … The best use of a Cabbage Patch Doll ever seen on an American stage. … Although I got “the jimmy legs” midway through Act Seven, the potential blood clots were well worth sitting through the almost six-hour interpretation. … O’Neill and the Neo-Futurists give the gift of schadenfreude for those of us who have watched the ruling class perpetually screw up the natural order of this world. Sometimes there’s just no bailout or stimulus, even for the ruling class.
This was one of the greatest playgoing experiences of my life.
—Rob Kozlowski Theater Blog
I saw it Saturday night — and right before the first break, right as Joe Dempsey is trying (hilariously) to heft the unconscious Merrie Greenfield offstage, a near-perfect caricature of an indignant Goodman patron leaves his seat in the front row, storms to the door, turns and says “This is TERRIBLE. You people don’t know HOW to DO O’Neill!” There were a few quick rejoinders from the cast which got laughs, the guy left, and from that point on there was never an audience more behind a show. The laughs and applause just kept getting bigger, until the really painful and horrific final moment where there was a palpable feeling of very O’Neill-ish angst and dread of life that seemed very true to his tortured vision; then lights out and boom: the fastest, up-on-your-feet standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of.
Glorious. I hope it tours.
—Playwright Mickle Maher
I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to direct this play, but Greg and The Neo-Futurists have this ability to explore the serious and intellectual with a tremendous playfulness and sense of humor. This play demands that. … Jaw-dropping, horrific, and funny.
—Bob Falls, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director