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A CurtainUp Review
Signature Plays: The Sandbox, Drowning, Funnyhouse of a Negro
By Charles Wright
The triple bill opens with The Sandbox, an absurdist divertimento that premiered Off-Broadway in 1959. Albee's The Zoo Story had created a sensation the previous year; The Sandbox consolidated the playwright's reputation as a theatrical Wunderkind. It's a five-character comedy-drama about attitudes to aging and death among bourgeois Americans at the tail end of the Eisenhower era.
In The Sandbox, Mommy (Alison Fraser) and her hen-pecked spouse (Frank Wood) sunbathe while waiting for Grandma (Phyllis Somerville), Mommy's mother, to die. Grandma, wallowing in the titular sandbox, reminisces about her hardscrabble life until she's visited by a scantily clad body-builder (Ryan-James Hanataka) who's at once an aspiring movie actor and the angel of death.
The second play is Fornes's brief Drowning, written a couple of decades after The Sandbox and inspired by Chekhov's short story "The Drowned Man." It takes place in an unspecified location which, as designed by Mimi Lien for the Signature production, has an alienating, institutional feel to it.
Pea (Mikeah Ernest Jennings) and Roe (Sahr Ngauiah) — outfitted with grotesque prosthetic heads by costume designer Kaye Voyce — carry on a desultory discussion (the topics include paper and flesh and snow drifts). An acquaintance of theirs, Stephen (Frank Wood), similarly grotesque in appearance, shows up but says little.
The final play, Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro is the most complex and rewarding of the three. This fantasia, seen first in 1962 (and honored with an Obie in 1964), is a tour around the fractured emotional landscape of Sarah (Crystal Davenport), a young New Yorker, recently graduated from City College, who's struggling with the sour legacy of her upbringing and the challenges of being a bright, ambitious black woman in an environment dominated by white men.
All three plays belong among those once unconventional works commonly described as "theater of the absurd." While there was never an organized absurdist movement, playwrights of the mid-20th century such as Beckett and Ionesco, followed by younger playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic, portrayed human existence as random, out of kilter, and incomprehensible . In absurdist plays, at their best, the pedestrian chatter is oddly compelling. In Fornes's play, the banalities become downright heartbreaking.
Directed by Lila Neugebauer, the Signature Plays are beautifully (it's tempting to say ideally) cast. Of special note are Davenport as the suicidal Sarah; Jennings as the love-starved Pea; and Somerville, who (despite being supine and splay-legged in a pile of sand) gives Grandma dignity in her dying hour. Each offers a distinctive slant on existential angst, finding humor as well as pathos in the characters' suffering.
Albee, Kennedy, and Fornes made names for themselves in an era when frugality and a lack of sumptuousness distinguished Off-Broadway (then at an early stage) from Broadway. At Signature, a team of fine designers — Lien (sets), Voyce (costumes), Mark Barton (lighting), Brandon Wolcoott (sound and music), and Paul Rubin (aerial effects) — has given the three plays a degree of lavishness that would have been unimaginable to the playwrights in their youth. It's natural to wonder whether, back then, such elaborate trappings might have been anathema to the playwrights' rebellious spirits and out of sync with their dramatic ambitions.
The important question is whether the costly design of the current production adds anything significant to the three playwrights' achievement. The answer with respect to The Sandbox and Drowning is that, except for visual and aural pleasure, the marginal benefit is small. In the case of Funnyhouse, on the other hand, the complex design — the set with its many moving pieces, the wildly varied lighting, richness of sound, and aerial effects — enhances the spectator's grasp of the horror and incomprehensibility of Sarah's internal world and the tensions that are driving her to suicide.
As studies in loneliness, alienation, and unease, the Signature Plays fit together nicely as a single evening. It's useful, if slightly challenging, to contemplate how unorthodox each must have seemed to its first audiences. The themes and the zaniness that marked the mid-century avant-garde are so familiar now, on stage and off, that they're no longer viewed as absurd.