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A CurtainUp Review
Edward Albee's The American Dream and The Sandbox
by Les Gutman
Albee was writing the considerably longer American Dream (it runs about 75 minutes here) in 1959 when he stopped long enough to write The Sandbox, which clocks in at just over a quarter hour. The latter is not a sequel, though it is clear it could be. The three major characters -- Mommy (Judith Ivey), Daddy (George Bartenieff) and Grandma (Lois Markle) -- appear in both.
Although the two plays are, as set out above, much about reality vs. fiction, the family trio arrives in these Albee plays almost directly from his real life. The hideously overbearing, materialistic and wicked mother, and the weak father who long ago resigned his own self to her, are Albee's adoptive parents; the sharp-tongued grandma who suffers not-in-silence under her daughter's domestic tyranny is his maternal grandmother Cotter, who died in 1959, and to whom The Sandbox is dedicated. But Albee didn't write these plays merely as an exercise in parent-trashing. His focus was set on something broader -- what we can best appreciate today as the worldview promulgated by "The Donna Reed Show," "Ozzie and Harriet," and their 1950's "peachy-keen" kin. Some were bowled over by the then-young (now-octagenarian) playwright -- hisZoo Story was still running at the time -- but some critics were so offended by The America Dream that they wouldn't even review it. Up to this point, Europe had had its Theatre of the Absurd, but Albee was the first to engage it in an American context.
The American Dream begins as a tame enough satire only to explode into a full-scale onslaught on the prevailing sensibilities. The trigger is the arrival of Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler), the adoption agency-running "club lady" who brokered Mommy and Daddy's adoption of their "bumble of joy" until they blithely disposed of "it" in a manner befitting a Greek tragedy. Albee's assault is not complete, however, until a young man (Harmon Walsh), who is denominated The American Dream, arrives. It is Grandma, not all that surprisingly, who orchestrates what happens next, and so pleased is she by what she has done, she can't resist stepping out of the play, to watch it end with the audience.
Mommy spends much of The American Dream conjuring the arrival of "the van" to take Grandma away. In The Sandbox, she has arranged a different send-off. Hiring a cellist (Daniel Shevlin) -- more for diversion, one suspects, than gravitas -- Grandma is deposited in a sandbox (perhaps at the beach, but more likely in the back yard, maybe with a view of Long Island Sound) to await her end. Another young man (Jesse Williams), posing in a speedo while awaiting his big break, turns out to be her angel of death. Grandma's flirtation with the fourth wall persists here. At times creating bits of parallel with Beckett, the playlet is a remarkably efficient tease at much of what is to follow in the Albee oeuvre.
This production neither looks nor feels like the celebration of Albee or his early plays that it seems to want to be. Judith Ivey is given the task of getting us to watch a character so odious that our first inclination is to turn away. Equally shrill and unctuous, but with a core of massive insecurity, this Mommy would explain why a young man would run away at the first opportunity, and not look back. To say that Ivey succeeds is not to say it makes her performance riveting. The original Grandma in this production was to have been Albee veteran Myra Carter. It's really the pivotal role in both plays, and one can't help but wonder how much better it would have been had Carter not been forced to drop out. Lois Markle is not without her moments, but her portrayal is more likely to conjure up Vicki Lawrence than the woman to whom the second play is dedicated. Kathleen Butler is also underwhelming as Mrs. Barker. The men are less important in this world, but George Bartenieff does just fine in making Daddy into little more than a puppet. Both of the "young men" acquit themselves well, both physically and otherwise.
Though it is a "long" short play, The American Dream manages to drag in this production, making the efficiency of The Sandbox all the more appealing. Neil Patel's sets are uncharacteristically unpolished, making one wonder if that is a design choice that doesn't quite register. The other design elements raise no such concerns, and the costumes certainly fit the period. For better or worse, there is nothing dated about these Albee plays. As with the recent revival of Zoo Story as part of Second Stages Peter and Jerry, one can appreciate from Albee's early work that he was quickly destined to be far more than a one hit wonder, and that everything he has done since has been built on that foundation.
Peter and Jerry at Second Stage
Albee Playwright Album