Estate has hopes for revised O'Neill

WASHINGTON — Sometimes it takes a little investment and renovation to bring out the value of a property.

That’s true not just of real estate, but also of the estates of late, legendary playwrights. After all, not every title in a scribe’s catalog is a hot ticket. Take “Strange Interlude,” Eugene O’Neill’s first success and a 1928 Pulitzer winner. It’s seldom produced today — largely because of a five-hour-plus running time that prompted a dinner break during its initial Broadway run.

Now comes a newly abridged revival by D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater Company that’s raising expectations within the O’Neill estate.

This new incarnation was generated by the production’s adaptor and director, STC a.d. Michael Kahn, rather than commissioned by the O’Neill estate in the way that Broadway’s current revision of “Porgy and Bess” was initiated by the Gershwin estate. But in streamlining “Strange Interlude” to make it more accessible to contempo theater auds, the O’Neill estate could nonetheless reap the benefits of added revenue from an increase in licensed stagings.

Kahn, who says he’s long yearned to stage the challenging psychological drama, seized his chance to work on “Interlude” as part of a celebration of his 25th anniversary with the internationally recognized company, and toiled for more than a year to revise the play while preserving its form and style. The process continued throughout the six-week rehearsal, as Kahn fine-tuned the show’s innovative use of fourth-wall-breaking asides in which characters express their inner thoughts.

The three-hour, 40-minute version bowed April 1 at STC’s Harmon Center, with Francesca Faridany (“Man and Boy”) playing Nina Leeds, the distraught woman whose relentless search for happiness envelopes the tortured men around her.

ICM agent Val Day, who reps the O’Neill estate, says Kahn was given carte blanche to create the adapted version. STC has been granted rights to transfer the production; licensing agent for future productions is Samuel French.

Day says the go-ahead was based on Kahn’s reputation as one of the foremost directors of classics in the U.S., including his 1997 adaptation of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” which received four Helen Hayes awards, including outstanding resident play.

Reviews of “Interlude” from D.C. critics have been restrained. Washington Post scribe Peter Marks praised Faridany’s performance and Kahn’s “handsomely pared-down production,” but suggested auds could grow weary of its long stretches of melodrama. In other words, a rush of regional productions may be slow in coming.

In the meantime, though, “Interlude” is part of a Eugene O’Neill festival co-sponsored by D.C.’s Arena Stage, which includes Arena-mounted revivals of “Ah, Wilderness” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The fest, which runs through May 5, also includes readings of selected O’Neill plays, lectures and panels.

Also among the O’Neill readings was a rare glimpse of “Exorcism,” O’Neill’s autobiographical one-act penned in 1920 about his botched suicide attempt. A copy of the script was unearthed last year, to the surprise of scholars who thought all copies had been destroyed on O’Neill’s orders following its only staging by the Provincetown Players. The play, which has not yet been licensed in the U.S., will be published by Yale U. Press.

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