Monday, March 31, 2008

Melting Down the Nuclear Family

"The American Dream" and "The Sandbox" at the Cherry Lane Theatre, March 27, 2008

Under the direction of the author, these two one-act plays appear to be the first time Mr. Albee revisited a previous play to write something of a prequel. He did this recently with the successful "Peter and Jerry" adding "Homelife" as a prequel to "Zoo Story."

There's not quite the same direct connection here, but we do get two visits with Mommy (Judith Ivey), Daddy (George Bartenieff) and Grandma (Lois Markle). In "The American Dream," Mommy and Daddy are waiting on a visitor, though they're not quite sure whom or why. Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler) shows up, also unsure as to why she's there. Finally Grandma tells Mrs. Barker a sordid tale of an infant boy whose adoptive parents mutilate and ultimately kill. No sooner is the story ended that the doorbell rings at the arrival of a tall, handsome and muscular Young Man (Harmon Walsh). He tells his own tale of emptiness, pain and the loss of his twin brother at birth, with events that match up to the torture of the boy Grandma talked about. Grandma uses the young man as an opportunity to escape the bickering, sniping and threats of calling "the van man." Mommy, Daddy and Mrs. Barker discover the Young Man in their living room. Mommy is immediately (if pruriently) attracted to the Young Man, finding something very familiar about him as she flirts. The act ends before revealing any more.

"The Sandbox" opens on a beach where The (very muscular) Young Man (Jesse Williams) speedo-clad this time, stands slowly waving his arms. Mommy and Daddy enter, looking for the right spot to deposit Grandma. It seems Grandma has lived well beyond her usefulness and they seek a convenient spot to facilitate her demise. Daddy carries her in as she squawks and squeals like an infant. Once placed in the sandbox, Mommy brings on The Musician (Daniel Shevlin) to accompany the proceedings on the cello. It gets late, so Mommy and Daddy leave. Grandma then engages The Young Man in conversation, learning that he's been hired to play the role of the angel of death.

Ms. Ivey is a most overbearing, self-centered and obnoxious Mommy, manipulating and intimidating everyone in her path. This Mommy may hear, but rarely listens unless it concerns her own wants.

In Daddy, Mr. Bartenieff is a mouse of a milquetoast, befuddled and more concerned for calmness than clarity.

Of the Young Men offered, Mr. Williams is the more successful of the two. The very handsome Mr. Walsh comes across a bit self-conscious and ill at ease with Mr. Albee's dialogue. Mr. Williams is afforded a bit more leeway with the overt transparency of his purpose on stage.

Ms. Markle's Grandma is the only character who is afforded more than two dimensions. Writhing under the mental torture of her daughter's charity (not that she'd ever be allowed to forget that), hers is the only voice of normalcy among the surrounding navel-gazers.

Having seen Arthur Laurent's direction of "Gypsy" and now Mr. Albee's direction of his own work, I find a similar economy of effort, basic and straightforward, generally allowing the actor to make his/her own way through the role. As with Pinter, it seems that Mr. Albee is also an "actor's playwright." Finding meaningful motivation and subtext amid the absurd plots/scenarios must provide a great and exciting challenge for an actor.

As the author, Mr. Albee has created a scenario he would go on to explore from many different directions, that of dysfunctional family groups and murky stories of children from such unions. I could see a bit of "...Virginia Woolf's" Martha and George in some of Mommy and Daddy's interactions, as well as the unseen child from that play. Many have already discussed the impact of Mr. Albee's own adoptive parents on his writing. I won't attempt further analysis here.

Neil Patel's basic sets and Nicole Pearce's lights neither distract or make significant contribution to the proceedings. Carrie Robbins' costumes are equally serviceable, if unremarkable (though what was up with that poorly attached lace collar/shawl on Grandma's dress and her dreadful shoes?)

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