19 March 2012

'The Lady from Dubuque'

On Friday evening, 9 March, Diana and I returned to the new Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row to see the revival of Edward Albee’s Lady from Dubuque at the End Stage Theatre, the Signature Theatre Company’s largest and most formal performance space in its new complex. Albee’s 1977 play replaced the previously announced world première of his Laying an Egg which will now be produced in a future season. (The theater hasn’t offered a specific explanation of the indefinite postponement, but Michael Riedel in the New York Post reports that the playwright was having difficulty with the play’s third act, which is stylistically at variance with the first two. According to Patrick Healy in the New York Times, Albee had requested the postponement of Laying an Egg because he was taking longer to finish the play than he’d planned. Explaining, “I was overcomplicating things,” Albee says he’s had a “breakthrough” and would finish the new script this summer.) Albee, who has previously been the playwright-in-residence at STC in 1993-94 and has had plays presented there in other seasons as well, is the troupe’s first Legacy dramatist since establishing its permanent home this season at the Frank Gehry-designed Signature Center. The Legacy Program, which began as an occasional event at STC for its 10th anniversary season (when the company presented Albee’s Occupant), is a chance for previously produced playwrights at STC to revisit a play or to present a new one.

Lady was last seen in New York City at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway in 1980; it premièred on 31 January and ran a mere 12 performances. Clive Barnes in the New York Post had called Lady “a comedy of manners about death,” and John Simon, the famously acerbic reviewer for New York magazine, wrote: “The Lady from Dubuque is the worst play about dying since The Shadow Box. It is the worst play about anything, ever.” Simon added, “The Lady from Dubuque is a lot of desperate pretensions and last-ditch attitudinizing about nothing . . . .” In the New York Times, Walter Kerr pointed out that “‘The Lady From Dubuque’ is a play in two acts and three questions, none of which . . . is ever answered” and complained that “Mr. Albee is still working in an ornately convoluted ‘literary’ style that has no conversational feel to it . . . .” In the end, Kerr advised the playwright that if he “wishes to continue indulging himself in the sort of philosophical speculation he’s lately become addicted to (I find this speculation thinnish and familiar), he must first put some muscle, some tangible flesh and blood, onstage to serve as base.” The review concluded that “the play is far too much like its expiring heroine. ‘My arms go around bone,’ her husband says, ‘She diminishes.’” In contrast, Gerald Clarke, saying the play was “a major work,” characterized it in Time magazine as Albee’s “best since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” After a three-week run at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut that June and July and some productions abroad, the play faded from the stages of the United States. (Indeed, new Albee plays were absent from New York stages for about a decade after the failures of Lady and two other ’80s flops—until the Signature’s Albee season brought him back.) Then the play was revived in 2007 by Seattle Rep (staged by the company’s artistic director, David Esbjornson, who directs the STC revival), the same year the play saw its London première. It’s still a relative rarity among Albee’s works.

Considered one of Albee’s bleakest plays, Lady’s negative reception on Broadway 32 years ago was partly due to its subject: death. At the time of the failure, however, Albee blamed reviewers, especially the TV reviewers, whom he called “dimwits.” “The play is fine,” the playwright insisted. In a comment quoted in People just after the play closed on Broadway, the playwright insisted, "Broadway audiences will rarely take a chance unless they hear it is worth buying. But commercial merit doesn't have to do with a play's merit." In Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, his 1999 biography of the dramatist, Mel Gussow wrote that Albee was drinking so much at the time he wrote Lady that he often couldn’t fix script problems even when he recognized them. “I remember not being sober enough to do the work,” Gussow reported that Albee admitted.

The STC revival is Albee’s opportunity to reintroduce this work to audiences, and he says he hopes it, and perhaps his other Broadway failures from what Gussow calls “Albee’s down period, when nothing seemed to go right,” Lolita (1981) and The Man with Three Arms (1983), will gain a reappraisal. “I don’t necessarily want ‘The Lady From Dubuque’ and those other plays to be liked, but I do think they are worthy of respect,” the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner says. Like Tennessee Williams after his great early plays, Albee felt that following the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he “was supposed to write, ‘Son of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and keep on doing that. I didn’t, and that annoyed” the critics. Albee has revised the play since it flopped in 1980, and the London revival (which starred Maggie Smith) was more successful, running for three months at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

The Lady from Dubuque starts while Jo (Laila Robins) and Sam (Michael Hayden) are having a late-night party, entertaining their guests with a game of Twenty Questions. As the evening progresses, the partiers drink more and become less congenial and it becomes clear that something more than meets the eye is going on. “Who am I?” demands Sam, inviting questions from his and Jo’s neighbor Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife, Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), and their friend Fred (C. J. Wilson) and his latest girlfriend, Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), as we learn what everyone else already knows: Jo’s dying and often in terrible pain. This doesn’t prevent the whole bunch, including—especially—Jo, from engaging in Virginia Woolf-type savagery, rubbing salt in old wounds and revealing unpleasant truths about one another. The games delay, though don’t prevent, the acid from spurting out; it’s a good thing, I suppose, that the game is Twenty Questions and not Truth or Dare. When Jo cries out in pain, there’s barely a lull in the proceedings—even Jo rejoins the party.

The house, a modernist, nearly characterless stage set designed in beiges and taupes by John Arnone, is not so much a boxing ring as an operating theater-cum-torture chamber. From time to time, the characters deliver asides, mostly short phrases but occasionally longer speeches, to the audience, but these aren’t self-conscious or furtive, and the other characters don’t pretend they aren’t aware of the piercing of the fourth wall; sometimes they watch us as if to see how we’ll respond, it seemed. The party breaks up and Sam carries Jo upstairs to bed and just as they disappear, an unexpected guest and her mysterious companion (Jane Alexander and Peter Francis James) arrive in the empty living room right as the first act ends.

When the second act commences and Sam descends the stairs to find the elegantly dressed woman posed in an easy chair in his living room, the question “Who are you?” takes on an altogether different urgency. He keeps asking, but she won’t answer, except in riddles. (Her name’s Elizabeth—she passes herself off as Jo’s mother, the lady from Dubuque, Iowa, though Jo’s always said her mother, a tiny woman with pink hair whom no one’s ever met, lives in New Jersey—but the woman’s never called by name except perhaps once, by her companion, Oscar.) What had been a largely realistic first act, brutal but life-like (except for the direct address, which I don’t feel really enhances the play except as an unnecessary signal that something’s off center here), now starts to veer off into Pinterland. When Oscar enters the room, Sam becomes almost apoplectic. A handsome black man of about the same age as Elizabeth, Oscar is equally elegant (the spot-on costumes are by Elizabeth Hope Clancy) and restrained, but nonetheless menacing and possesses combat skills that are downright scary. (Later, he puts Sam out with a Vulcan death grip—although that’s not how he explains it.) Soon enough, Edgar and Lucinda return, ostensibly to smooth over the acrimony of the previous evening’s end, and then Fred and Carol appear—no one seems to believe much in door locks and keys in this suburb. Despite Sam’s insistence, his erstwhile friends all believe that Elizabeth’s Jo’s mother and abuse Sam for his refusal to accept her. Oscar finally subdues Sam (with that death grip) and Fred takes the opportunity to step in and bind him, unconscious and on the floor, with his belt. Jo eventually comes down and even she, in her depleted state, seems to accept Elizabeth, who cradles the dying woman on the center couch.

On a wall panel outside the End Stage, where STC posts background information and sidelights relating to the production, among the quotations from the playwright was one in which Albee averred that one reason his post-Virginia Woolf plays were rejected by New York reviewers and audiences was that he’d begun to write plays, like Tiny Alice, that were confusing in ways in which theatergoers weren’t ready to be confused. Perhaps Albee’s partly right there: in 1980, maybe audiences and reviewers just weren’t ready for the kind of Pinteresque dramaturgy of Lady, packed with mysteries, unvoiced threats, and unexplained and inexplicable undertones. The big hit on Broadway was The Elephant Man and other significant new plays that season included Children of a Lesser God, Talley’s Folley, Nuts, Bent, and Loose Ends, all largely straightforward Realism with unambiguous themes. Strider was probably the closest commercial producers came to pushing the envelope on the Great White Way, and maybe Devour the Snow. (Musicals included Evita, Barnum, A Day in Hollywood/ A Night in the Ukraine, and Sugar Babies.) Nothing remotely approaching The Lady from Dubuque in style or theme challenged audiences or the press. Even the import from London, Pinter’s own Betrayal, wasn’t a stretch for conventional-theater lovers aside from the minor dramaturgical challenge that the story was told backwards. (Tennessee Williams also had a flop that season: Clothes for a Summer Hotel ran only 15 regular performances.)

Maybe Alan Schneider misdirected the Broadway staging (though neither the reviews nor later analysis suggests that). Or maybe Albee was right in this instance. In any case, Lady’s not a dismissible failure. Theater critic and editor Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., who included the play in the 1979-80 edition of Best Plays, posits that Lady’s Broadway failure “was a reflection on the system, not on this distinguished and durable play.” It doesn’t rank with Albee’s best work, but it’s intriguing, and it more than bears a reexamination and revival, especially in Esbjornson’s crackerjack production. Lady’s unquestionably a challenging play, artistically, psychologically (that is to say, thematically it’s hard to take), and intellectually. I suspect that everyone who sees it will come away with a different idea about what Albee’s saying, and everyone may even be right. The playwright didn’t give but the vaguest clues, and Diana and I spent more than an hour over coffee after the play talking about what we thought it’s about and why Albee constructed it the way he did. (We didn’t come to any agreement, and Diana found the play more lacking than I did in the end—though we both admired the stage work regardless.) Walter Kerr’s complaint that Albee raises questions he doesn’t answer is both true and immaterial; Kerr preferred straightforward well-made plays, but in reality, unanswered questions can be the most dramatic. They make the spectators draw their own conclusions.

Lady strikes me as a very personal play; even though Albee was supposedly inspired by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s psychiatry text, On Death and Dying, it seems the kind of play someone only writes because of something that happened to him—he went through this kind of loss or he saw someone close do so—and he had to write about it to work through it. Of course, I have no idea if something had happened in Albee’s life, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a writer comes up with because he read or saw something and said, Gee, there’s a play in that (the way John Logan said he was inspired to write Red after learning about Mark Rothko and the Seagram commission; see my report for ROT on 4 March).

(I suppose it’s a logical assumption that the title character’s name, Elizabeth, comes from the author of On Death, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The play’s title, however, is a wry joke of Albee’s. In the script, it’s explained by Oscar: New Yorker founder, Harold Ross, when asked to identify who’d typically read his magazine, is supposed to have answered, “One thing I know, the magazine is not going to be written for the little old lady from Dubuque.” According to writer Don Shewey, Albee has quipped, referring to the worldly and sophisticated Elizabeth: “If The New Yorker is written for anyone, it’s written for her.”)

Lady happens to Sam; Sam’s the character who experiences this death and has the emotional response to it. Though Elizabeth comes for Jo, it’s Sam on whom she leaves a mark. It’s Sam’s panic and pain Albee’s examining. In Albee’s view, Death isn’t a kind or relieving presence, especially for the survivors. She doesn’t come in and immediately carry Jo off peacefully and sweetly, lifting her pain—she’s a torturer. Sam’s completely lost and helpless, but Death brings him no comfort or relief. All the people he should have counted on for support turn against him—or were never really with him to start with, but make it clearer when Death appears. (There’s more than a little of Everyman in Lady: Sam’s a kind of late-20th-century Everyman.) Michael Hayden goes from a kind of superior coldness when he insists on taking his turn for Twenty Questions at the beginning of the play, through increasing uselessness and cluelessness, to abject ineffectiveness and hollowness at the end. Diana wondered why Albee presented the experience of death this way, but, as I said, I think it’s one form of the experience that Albee witnessed or had and he wanted to depict it. In any case, Hayden (whom I first saw in Washington almost 14 years ago as Chance Wayne opposite Elizabeth Ashley in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth) handles the descent, which is far from smooth or even, with extraordinary credibility and fullness. In fact Esbjornson has cast his show excellently with actors who embody the characters perfectly. Back Stage reports that “the fearless cast tears into the play” and this is unquestionably one of the best ensembles I’ve seen recently (a phenomenon that seems to be a happy habit at Signature, no matter who directs). Wilson, Paoluccio, Ryan, and Curtin present pitch-perfect images of the not-so-stalwart, narcissistic companions—can I really call them friends?—as they reveal the animosities and resentments that Fred, Carol, Edgar, and Lucinda harbor for Sam. Robins, one of our moist accomplished and commanding actresses (why isn’t this woman famous?) is the strongest and most vicious dying person ever, but she can go directly to unbearable agony in a blink. It’s hard to distinguish one actor above the others, but I have to mention how wonderfully Paoluccio slides from ditzy “dumb brunette” (Carol’s actually a natural blond, she explains, but she looks cheap “natural”) to street-wise sharpie who’s the only one to see what’s happening. I’ve never seen her on stage before, but Paoluccio’s someone to watch.

Elizabeth and Oscar are, of course, outliers in the Lady ensemble. They’re not supposed to be part of the gang, and Alexander and James stand alone in their tasteful gray outfits and well-coiffed hair—the epitome of elegance, sophistication, and reserve (Ben Brantley accords Elizabeth “patrician cool and surgical wit”). In 1980, I suspect, a mixed-race couple like this (played on Broadway by Irene Worth and Earle Hyman) might still have been a rarity enough to make an impression, but here, though Fred, who’s a bit of a bigot as well as a bully, points out that Oscar’s black, it’s only remarkable because Albee spotlights it. In any case, the actors make the characters so forcefully apart, so strongly separate by their demeanor and speech that what might have been lost to the passage of an era is not felt much on stage I don’t think. If these actors could float an inch off the ground, that’s how Elizabeth and Oscar would move, I’m sure. They don’t ruffle (though Oscar can lash out—all the more frighteningly for his stillness).

As I understand it, Albee did a little revising of Lady since 1980, though I gather it was mostly updating a few references. The STC production is set “Now,” but the script still harks back to the late ’70s. Oscar says he’s a vet of World War II, which in 1977 or even 1980 would have made him in his late 50’s or early 60’s but today would make him over 90. Elizabeth speaks of the Soviet Union as if it were still a contemporary reference point, as it would have been at the height of the Cold War in 1980 with Leonid Brezhnev still in charge, though some lines about Richard Nixon, added for the London production, were deleted here. (Sam also uses a cell phone.) Elizabeth also remarks that Japanese isn’t “a required language yet,” a comment that would have resonated 30 years ago when Japan was at the height of its economic mastery. (Today the reference might be Chinese or Hindi.) Arnone’s set is essentially timeless, fitting anywhere from 1955 to today, but the decor has a decidedly ’80s feel, with its abstract paintings and faux-African sculptures, boxy furniture, and even a cowhide rug. (Oscar also remarks on a console TV in the library—does anyone even still make those in this age of flat screens?) But since the date of the play or the production is really irrelevant, these are hardly consequential faults.

I could easily spend paragraphs trying to articulate what The Lady from Dubuque means—or means to me—but not only isn’t that what an ROT play report’s supposed to be, but it would ultimately be inconclusive and mostly meaningless to someone else. (There are both on-line and printed analyses of the play all over, of course, and many also speculate on the apparent reasons for its Broadway failure.) Even my suggestion that the play contends with something Albee actually experienced is irrelevant now, so all I’ll do here is reiterate what I said earlier: Lady from Dubuque is a worthy play, full of interesting and arresting stage images and thoughts, however difficult they are to contemplate. My only serious criticism is that both act one and act two have some tedious passages that make their points and then remake them, and if Albee had edited them a little, the two-hour Lady might be a neat 90-minute one-act. (Although, that would eliminate the strategically managed act break which is, itself, a dramatic moment.) It is, in any case, a terrific vehicle for theater artists, especially actors. The characters are just a notch off true Realism, making them challenging and demanding; I can only guess at the kind of work, both in and out of rehearsal, this cast must have had to do. For audiences, Lady’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think this revival shows that it’s time now for the play to be added to the repertoires of American theaters.

Notices were mixed, though most reviewers were largely positive, even enthusiastic about the production—especially the acting. Brantley calls the revival “scintillating” in the New York Times and concludes that it’s “exquisitely mounted,” even revealing to him that, as I noted earlier, the play’s about Sam (something Brantley had apparently missed). In Back Stage, Erik Haagensen goes so far as to write: “This blistering yet deeply humane metaphysical drama about death ranks with Albee's finest work” and concludes, “‘The Lady From Dubuque’ is a sure and stunning blow to the heart.” On the other side, Variety’s Marilyn Stasio was more in tune with the 1980 reception, asserting that the play “doesn't exactly rise triumphantly from the ashes” because the “metaphysical mystery is surprisingly shallow” despite “its handsome mounting” which “does . . . look absolutely stunning.” Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post more or less agrees, saying that the reasons for the 1980 flop are understandable: Lady “relies on forced situations and straw men” even if Esbjornson “makes a good case for this play’s mix of sophistication and crassness, stylization and realism.” In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold asserts that “Albee has created a powerful, multi-layered image of dying and the sense of loss it brings” but adds, “Even a multi-layered image, though, isn't a drama.” He describes the STC revival as “sleek yet surprisingly poignant . . . with its strongly focused acting,” but states that this only makes the weaknesses of the script more apparent. He concludes by saying, “Riveting yet off-putting, it feels frozen, a fossil reality trapped in amber.”

1 comment:

  1. Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee died on 16 September 2016 at the age of 88 at his Long Island home in Montauk, New York. In addition to his Pulitzers for 'A Delicate Balance'(1967), 'Seascape' (1975), and 'Three Tall Women' (1994), Albee won Tonys for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' (1963) and 'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?' (2002), as well as a 2005 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, among other awards and honors, including the National Medal of Arts in 1996.