Unspooling over three generations of a family, it revolves around the beguiling Nina Leeds, who, as the play begins, is a young woman mourning her first love and tormented by the fact that she never slept with him. Killed in World War I, he was her male ideal. Even in death, he is an object of jealousy for the other men in her life, including her professor father and her family’s friend Charlie Marsden, an author sexually uninterested in women but obsessed with Nina all the same.
“Dear old Charlie,” Nina likes to say, her platonic fondness a dagger to his heart, but Charlie is her mainstay through the tumultuous years. After Nina marries Sam Evans, a nice guy she doesn’t love, she discovers that insanity runs in his family — a secret he doesn’t know and she isn’t about to tell him. To give Sam a child but avoid the risk of passing along mental illness, she enlists her friend Ned Darrell to get her pregnant on the sly. The plan works, except that their arrangement blossoms into an affair, and Ned isn’t wild about seeing his son raised by another man. The boy, in turn, is haunted by spying his mother kissing Ned.
It’s a crowded play, and O’Neill layers its abundant dialogue with the racing thoughts of his characters, who speak their anxieties and suspicions aloud for the audience’s benefit. However many people Mr. Greenspan is playing in a given scene, he is operating on double that number of tracks — and following along, so are we. This takes some getting used to, but it’s like the way your ear has to adjust to Shakespeare. Give it a little time, and you’ll ease right in.
The straightforwardness of the design — sets and costume by Dane Laffrey, lighting by Jen Schriever — helps here. Mr. Greenspan wears a classic three-piece suit throughout, and the playing spaces for the first seven acts are intimate, contained within a wooden structure that Mr. Laffrey has nestled inside the cavernous theater.
But sound is a stubborn obstacle to this delicately modulated performance. Ceiling fans whir softly over the audience in those initial spaces, making it difficult to hear, especially when Mr. Greenspan lowers his voice to a whisper or moves upstage.
Well into the show on Friday night, the fans were turned off, and the difference was remarkable: Act VI — featuring Nina; Ned; and my two favorites, the aw-shucks Sam and the petty, surprisingly sympathetic Charlie — actually rollicked. For the final two acts, though, we migrated upstairs to the mezzanine, where echoey acoustics and a sudden distance from Mr. Greenspan, separated from us by the balcony railing, got in the way.
Still, his performance is astonishing in its clarity, nuance and endurance. When, at the end of that evening’s marathon, Mr. Greenspan took a too-brief bow, I thought: Wait, come back. We’re not done thanking you.