Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Off-Broadway: Albee's "Lady"; O'Neill's "Horizon"; Headland's "Assistance"

The Lady from Dubuque
Starring Jane Alexander, Catherine Curtin, Michael Hayden, Peter Francis James, Tricia Paoluccio, Laila Robins, Thomas Jay Ryan, C.J. Wilson
Written by Edward Albee; directed by David Esbjornson
Previews began February 14, 2012; opened March 5; closes April 15

Beyond the Horizon
Starring Rod Brogan, Patricia Conolly, Lucas Hall, Jonathan Judge-Russo, Aimee Laurence, Joanna Leister, Wrenn Schmidt, David Sitler,John Thomas Wait
Written by Eugene O'Neill; directed by CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly
Previews began February 15, 2012; opened February 26; closes April 8
Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Starring Michael Esper, Sue Jean Kim, Virginia Kull, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Amy Rosoff, Bobby Steggert
Written by Leslye Headland; directed by Trip Cullum
Previews began February 3, 2012; opened February 28; closes Mar. 11
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Robins and Alexander in The Lady from Dubuque (photo by Joan Marcus)
Like most Edward Albee plays of the past 40 years, The Lady from Dubuque (which lasted a mere dozen performances on Broadway in 1980) is vulgar, trivial and oh so familiar: we meet six unpleasant people at a party in an upscale suburban house where getting drunk is the game. Well, one of the games: the play opens with these three couples playing “20 Questions” (with its insistent refrain, “who am I?”), as Albee sledgehammers home his play’s themes of loss of identity and fractured relationships, for starters.

As alcohol-induced insults fly, the evening’s hostess, Jo, takes shots at everyone, including her weak-willed husband Sam. But since Jo has a terminal disease, it’s apparently OK for her to be nasty to her guests and spouse. When the party finally breaks up, the others leave, Jo and Sam go upstairs to bed, and Act I ends with the arrival of two elegantly attired gate crashers: the title character--why she’s from Dubuque is simply so Albee can shoehorn in Harold Ross’s famous quip about New Yorker magazine not being for “the old lady in Dubuque”--and her black sidekick, Oscar.

Act II, the next morning, becomes even more vicious, as the new arrivals first stage an interminable conversation with Sam, who rightly (and repeatedly) asks, “who are you?”; after the other couples improbably return, Elizabeth--who insists she’s Jo’s mother-- comforts Jo while Sam (a properly ravaged Michael Hayden) is beaten down and tied up merely for trying to protect his dying wife from two strangers: even if no one believes him.

Albee was influenced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying, which explained the five stages of death. Aside from naming the angel of death after the author, there’s very little Kubler-Ross here; but there’s a lot of Albee. The vulgarity, casual racism and sexism, shaky tonal shifts (here in the form of asides to the audience) and arbitrary character actions: Albee’s done it all before, from The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to A Delicate Balance and Seascape. Even Albee’s infamously bitchy dialogue, while occasionally amusing, palls quickly.

David Esbjornson directs spiffily on John Arnone’s sparkling set, while the cast makes Albee’s caricatures more intensely felt than they deserve. If Laila Robins evokes too well the shrillness and pain of Jo, she’s beautifully balanced by Jane Alexander’s masterly underplaying as the calm, cool Elizabeth. But neither they nor the others can save The Lady from Dubuque from stewing in its own vacuousness.

Schmidt and Hall in Beyond the Horizon
The creaky dramaturgy of Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, 1920’s Beyond the Horizon, never erases the dramatic power of a story that, though familiar, feels fresh thanks to its author’s seriousness and the Irish Rep’s respectful production.

Robert Mayo decides to join his uncle, Captain Scott, on a lengthy ocean voyage, leaving his parents’ Massachusetts farm: his less-bookish brother Andrew shoulders the bulk of the heavy work anyway. At the last minute, however, Robert and local gal Ruth admit their love for each other and agree to marry, so he decides to remain. Now it’s Andrew-- whose unspoken love for Ruth is now unattainable--agrees to leave with his uncle. When the play ends nine years later, this broken family will have been irrevocably changed.

O’Neill compensates for his overexplanatory dialogue (if audience members take drinks every time the play’s title is mentioned, a lot of people will be plastered) with skillfully depicted relationships and Ruth’s tragically downward spiral. The humanity marking O’Neill’s best plays is present; if his poetry is spotty, there are signs of the master he would become.

Under Ciaran O’Reilly’s intelligent direction, a warmhearted cast is led by Rod Brogan’s Andrew and Wrenn Schmidt’s Ruth, who perfectly--and powerfully--portray the ambivalence contained in O’Neill’s daring final lines.

Kull and Esper in Assistance (photo by Joan Marcus)
In Leslye Headland’s Assistance, minions working for A Great Man (likely modeled on movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, once Headland’s boss) deal with his impossible demands and unthinking way of treating them. At first, it’s amusing to watch these breathless young men and women field countless phone calls and smooth over missed appointments and other blunders made trying to keep an unhappy boss happy.

Soon, however, the fun ends: not because Assistance turns serious (it doesn’t), but because Headland has nowhere to go. There are simply more instances of assistants trying--and failing--so in desperation, the playwright and her canny director Trip Cullman resort to diversions such as a few phone-call monologues and an absurdist dance finale that concludes by destroying the hated office (clever set design by David Korins).

While these two-dimensional office workers aren’t real people, Virginia Kull is able to pinpoint Nora's trajectory from eager novice to burned-out veteran in the space of a few scenes. Assistance would play much better if it was shorter--by an hour, at least.

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