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A CurtainUp Review
The Play About The Baby
By Elyse Sommer
Oh what a wangled teb we weave. Wounds, children, wounds. Learn from it. Without wounds, what are you?
If Edward Albee were a painter, he might well work in the style of Pablo Picasso or Claes Oldenberg. That's why both Brian Cronin's illustration for the program cover and John Arnone's set so effectively establish the tone for Albee's absorbing new work, The Play About the Baby. The cover art is a nod to Albee's abstract expressionist style by way of Picasso's influence. Arnone's set -- a rocking horse and wicker baby carriage suspended from the ceiling and a giant pacifier and two hassock-sized alphabet blocks on the otherwise bare floor -- is another nod to Albee, this time via Oldenberg.
As for the play itself, Albee's first new offering on the New York stage since his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women, it is more than anything a nod from Albee himself to all things Albee-esque: Game playing that toys with cruelty. . . reality pitted against illusion. . .humor that is shadowed by a sense of doom. . . macabre events. . .characters whose motivations are never neatly parsed but whose words can be brilliantly playful. . . heterosexual passion mixed with intimations of homoeroticism.
Like Picasso and Oldenberg, Albee's story will be most pleasurable and meaningful to those who don't feel compelled to cross every t and dot every i That's not to say it's an unsolvable puzzle. The main idea is expressed quite straightforwardly by the character played by Brian Murray: "If you have no wounds how can you know if you're alive? If you have no scar how do you know who you are? Have been? Can ever be?"
The play, cogently directed by David Esbjornson, opens onto an abstract expressionist Eden. A lovely young girl, named Girl (Kathleen Early), and a young Adonis, named Boy (David Burtka), are passionately in love. She gives birth and both are thrilled with the newborn baby. But a paradise à la Albee bears watching for the seeds of trouble to come: for example, Girl's screams of pain during the off-stage birthing; Boy's agonized memory of actual (having his arm broken) and implied violence endured during an encounter with a gang of toughs. Paying close attention to every word and sound is doubly important, since the play is deftly structured so that everything is played and replayed, often with new connotations.
The serpent -- or rather serpents-- who intrude on the idyllically happy young couple are an older couple. Man (Brian Murray) and Woman (Marian Seldes). This being a black comedy (The Play About the Baby is even more laugh-aloud funny than the recently revived Tiny Alice) and these serpents appear more like genial, campy stand-up comics than bearers of intolerable pain.
Many of Murray's and Seldes' monologues seem to have more to do with taking the audience into their confidence with quirky essays that appear to be detours from the mission at hand. Thus, the sixth scene of the first act begins with the older man playing blind, which paves the way for him to poke fun at theater audiences which rarely include people who actually are blind ("deaf, yes! blind, seldom"). At times this breaking of the fourth wall smacks of Albee's deconstructing his reputation for being curmudgeonly about reaction to his hard to interpret plays. When the woman goes into a lengthy account of her European romantic adventures, the man's exasperated "Do you believe any of this?" could also be Albee's unspoken "don't take any of this too seriously -- sit back, listen, take it in and don't fuss about whether it's true and what it means."
Both Murray and Seldes are obviously having a grand time with these evil but merry prankster parts, but it is Seldes who takes her role to the outer limits. From the moment she climbs onto the stage (entering through an exit door at stage left), dressed in an elegant purple suit as if going to a book club luncheon, she grabs at your funny bone and doesn't let go. Her monologues and asides are full of sly verbal winks. Her declaration that she's on stage to help "him" (the man) is embroidered with this designed-for- laughs followup: "I'm not an actress, I want you to know that right off, though why you'd think I was, I don't know, though I am a trifle. . .theatrical, I suppose, and no apologies there." And there you are. Embrace Seldes' at times outrageously exaggerated theatricality -- the pauses and postures, the guileful grin, the sucked in cheeks, the eye-rolling, the balletic hand gestures -- and you'll savor not only her performance but the entire funny yet unnerving play.
There is a downside to all this merriment in that it tends to take some of the edge off the menace and escalating tension. That leaves it to David Burtka and Kathleen Early to provide the more intense emotional underpinnings. Besides being exceptionally attractive and handling their more revealing Edenic romps with natural grace, these young stage newcomers impressively move from joyful innocence to fearful devastation. Burtka, as the more complex of the pair, lets us see the young husband's potential for giving pain as well as recognizing when that pain will "hurt beyond salvation." Early touchingly conveys the young wife's capitulation to the older couple's mind games.
While Mr. Albee has urged people to avoid comparisons with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which also features a baby of questionable reality) and A Delicate Balance (which also features a mysterious couple), audiences will no doubt ignore his admonition and make comparisons about quality as well as plot details. Time will determine how The Play About the Baby will rank in relation to these and other top tier Albees, or whether it will make him a 4-time Pulitzer winner like Eugene O'Neill (see * below). In the meantime, with Seldes and Murray as the couple who've come "to take the baby" (whether real or symbolic) from the talented Early and Burtka, you're unlikely to find a more intriguingly structured, provocative or entertaining new play on or off Broadway.
*Note: Edward Albee won the Pulitzer Prize for A Delicate Balance in 1967, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994.
If the recent revival of Tiny Alice and this new play has made you curious about the controversial playwright, Mel Gussow's biography is now available as a paperback: Edward Albee : A Singular Journey.
For a review of the recent Second Stage revival of Tiny Alice go here
CurtainUp also reviewed a recent Albee revival of Delicate Balance
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