Sunday, March 30, 2008

Albee's American Nightmares

Theater review - off-Broadway
The American Dream and The Sandbox
Written and directed by Edward Albee
Starring Judith Ivey, Lois Markle, George Bartenieff, Kathleen Butler, Harmon Walsh, Jesse Williams, Daniel Shevlin

Performances March 21-April 19, 2008
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street

The American Dream
(photo: Gabe Evans)
Fifty years ago, Edward Albee’s shocking new voice upset the apple cart of American theater with plays that brought to light the dark secrets of the middle class. Although his poetic bile reached its apogee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, both of which showed that Albee could perform such surgical dissection in full-length form, it was his early one-acts that introduced his forceful, necessary bluntness to the world.

Of these, The Zoo Story -- a chilling and fatal confrontation between “civilized” Peter and “uncivilized” Jerry on a park bench -- is the most significant. But the two one-acts now on display at the Cherry Lane Theater, directed by the author, are also substantial works. The Sandbox, a 13-minute screed on family dysfunction, premiered in 1959; The American Dream, in which the same hateful characters return, followed a year later.

In these plays, Albee presents Mommy and Daddy, a middle-aged couple who pay lip service to their “loving” relationship after so many decades together. The one thing the couple agrees on is that they want to finally be rid of Grandma, Mommy's aging mother. Through the niceties of language that erects a wall between their agreeable facade and their murderous intent, Albee unmasks them as unconscionable frauds of the first degree, their American Dream consisting entirely of their own small-minded self-approbation.

The 80-year-old Albee’s current production of these two angry, youthful works demonstrates this gleefully and quite effectively, if blatantly. In The American Dream, Mommy and Daddy’s living room is decked out in bright patriotic colors, and Mommy sits in a blue chair while wearing a white blouse, red jacket, and red skirt. Only Grandma can puncture the couple's middle class banality with a series of pointed witticisms; the fact that Albee gives her the play’s most cutting remarks underlines his contempt for the “best and the brightest” of an earlier generation.

The American Dream’s obviousness only becomes apparent when the title character appears, although he’s close kin to the nameless young man who performs calisthenics in The Sandbox. Albee’s absurdist view of life and death still startles a half-century later. In fact, the lone false note strummed in these first-rate revivals is the intermission separating Dream from Sandbox, which saps some of the power of both works. A short pause between them would suffice.

The splendid actors easily take to the rhythms and cadences of Albee’s dialogue: Judith Ivey as the hilariously smug Mommy, George Bartenieff as the amusingly impotent Daddy, and Lois Markle as a cacklingly rebellious Grandma all ensure that these plays remain relevant.

No comments: