For a theatergoer, one-act plays can be part blessing, part predicament. If you’re enjoying a one-act play, it’s over too fast; if you aren’t, it’s a short unpleasantness, quickly ended. Because few one-acts can stand alone as a full evening (or matinee) at the theater, they’re often presented together with one or two others. That can multiply the issues: you can be set up for an interesting and enjoyable time at the theater and then be disappointed far more than if a great first act is followed by a disappointing second one. Your enjoyment meter could bounce up and down wildly as well. Sometimes, even when all the plays on offer are excellent ones, you could still be unsatisfied the way my father felt about what used to be called a mixed grill: not enough of some things, too much of others. (Dad generally stayed away from mixed grills, as you might guess.)
I wasn’t really thinking about this dilemma when the Signature Theatre Company announced that its 2015-16 season would include one-acts drawn from seasons devoted to three former resident playwrights (all now in their mid- or late 80s): Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, presented in the 1993-94 season; María Irene Fornés’s Drowning, 1999-2000; and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, 1995-96—given the umbrella title, the Signature Plays. In fact, I looked forward to the production because all the authors have reputations as not just good writers but interesting and challenging ones—groundbreakers, envelope-pushers, innovators. I was a little familiar with Funnyhouse because I’d dug up some reviews and clippings on Kennedy back in 2001 for a research client, going back to the start of her career. I knew The Sandbox because I’d heard a reading of it when I was in high school (in Germany by German actors using a translation) and later it was the one-act I staged in college for a directing class final in 1967. I’m embarrassed to say, however, that I’d seen Drowning (in rep with Mud) at STC in September 1999 (during the Fornés season), but I could remember nothing about it (including its origin as a Chekhov short story); the only other play of Fornés’s I’d seen was Letters from Cuba in February 2000, also at STC. Drowning was the only one of the Signature Plays I’d seen; I’d never seen a production of either of the other two, so I was looking forward to an intriguing experience at the very least.
The Signature Plays, a production in honor of the company’s 25th Anniversary that comes under STC’s Legacy Program which provides a homecoming for past Signature Playwrights-in-Residence, began previews in STC’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the small proscenium house at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on 3 May, opening on 22 May. The production, which runs two hours with a short pause between Sandbox and Drowning and an intermission before Funnyhouse, is scheduled to close on 19 June after a one-week extension from 12 June. My theater partner Diana and I caught the Signature Plays, whose constituent works share a director in Lila Neugebauer (who directed A. R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn at Signature in 2014; see my ROT report posted on 1 October 2014) and her design team, as well as many cast members, on Friday evening, 27 May.
First on the program is Edward Albee’s The Sandbox from 1959, originally written on commission for the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, but never performed there. It premièred on 15 April 1960 in the Jazz Gallery, a short-lived jazz club on St. Mark’s Place in New York’s East Village, and then it was produced Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre between 14 February and 25 March 1962 in repertory with Jack Richardson’s Gallows Humor as part of the Theater of the Absurd series produced by Richard Barr, Clinton Wilder, and Albee (who would go on to form the Albarwild production outfit that specialized in new and innovative plays and writers). Albee’s The American Dream, which is a related play written in 1961, and The Zoo Story were also part of Theater of the Absurd, along with five other avant-garde plays. (Albee had started American Dream before writing The Sandbox, but set it aside. He says he took most of the characters from Dream and set them in a different situation for Sandbox.) Sandbox often received largely negative notices in its early productions because reviewers found the absurdist plot confusing with the characters’ direct address to the audience, their acknowledgment that they are actors in a play, and the commands to the musician—until, that is, Absurdism became more common on American stages. (Theater people—actors and directors—generally took to it readily, just as they did the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, also writers who confounded critics and often audiences.) The Sandbox had a number of regional productions, including the Dallas Theatre Center in January 1963 and the Los Angeles Theatre Company in their 1967-68 season.
The play ran Off-Broadway in New York City with seven other modern one-act plays directed by Alan Schneider, produced by the Acting Company at the Public Theatre in March 1984 in a bill entitled Pieces of Eight. The Sandbox was again presented Off-Broadway in February and March 1994 by STC in a triple bill of one-act plays by Albee, Box, The Sandbox, and Finding the Sun, directed by the author. In March 2008, the play returned to the Cherry Lane in a double bill with The American Dream, again directed by the playwright. The Sandbox, along with The American Dream and The Zoo Story, is a popular play with college theaters and, of course, directing classes.
Approximately 15 minutes long, The Sandbox begins in bright daylight on a beach with a pair of beach lounges up right facing us, a sandbox up center, and a chair center left facing right. A Young Man (Ryan-James Hatanaka), in his 20’s, well-built and wearing a swimsuit, is doing calisthenics in slow motion. (He does a sort of stylized jumping jack, raising and lowering his arms like a living Vitruvian Man. It’s intended to call to mind the flapping of an angel’s wings.) Mommy (Alison Fraser) and Daddy (Frank Wood), a middle-aged couple, have brought 86-year-old Grandma (Phyllis Somerville), all of them clothed in bathing attire, to the beach from the city and Daddy carries the old woman in and sits her in the sandbox. Mommy and Daddy take their places in the beach lounges and Mommy summons a cellist (Melody Giron) who takes the chair at left and plays funereal music from time to time at Mommy’s command. Throughout the play, the Young Man, while continuing his exercises, is very pleasant, smilingly returning the others’ greetings with a cheery “Hi!” Grandma, sitting in the sandbox like a small child, makes nonsense sounds and scoops the sand over her legs with a toy shovel. (The sandbox is both a play-pen for Grandma’s second childhood and her grave.) Mommy and Daddy pay no attention to Grandma and the old woman starts throwing sand at Mommy. Grandma ceases her childlike behavior and speaks rationally to the audience, telling us about her life and the difficulties of raising her daughter, Mommy. Grandma starts talking to the Young Man, who says he’s an actor. The Young Man is exceedingly gracious to Grandma in contrast to Mommy and Daddy, who treat her as a burden they must take care of. Grandma remarks that it should be night by now and the lights dim; Mommy and Daddy hear an off-stage rumble. Mommy declares that the sound is literally coming from off stage (acknowledging that this is a play in a theater) and not from thunder or breaking waves; she recognizes that this is a harbinger of Grandma’s death. As the lights come back up to daytime, Mommy stands briefly by the sandbox and weeps perfunctorily before exiting with Daddy. Grandma, lying half buried in sand, continues to mock Mommy’s and Daddy’s mourning, but she soon finds that she can’t move. At this point, the Young Man stops exercising and comes down to Grandma in the sandbox. He tells the old woman to be still and reveals that he’s the Angel of Death, saying, “. . . I am come for you.” The Young Man is a little abashed at his amateurish delivery of this line, then he leans over and kisses Grandma on the forehead. Grandma compliments him and, smiling, closes her eyes. As the curtain closes, the cellist continues to play.
Christopher Isherwood dismissed The Sandbox as an “amuse-bouche for the heavier fare that follows,” but I think it’s more than that. Albee was only 31 when he wrote Sandbox, which the playwright considers one of his first plays (with 1958’s Zoo Story and 1959’s The Death of Bessie Smith), but he was already tackling significant and troubling themes. Deceptively simple, The Sandbox takes on some heady subjects in its brief span. It’s a biting satire on the false ideals and the lack of love and empathy, particularly for our elders, in the middle-class American family. In a way, The American Dream, which uses some of the same characters and some of the same dramatic material, can be seen as a prequel to The Sandbox. Both plays are Albee’s indictment of middle-class sanctimony and duplicity. As the playwright said in 1961 of The American Dream (just as accurate with respect to The Sandbox): “The play is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”
Neugebauer’s staging was clean and as spare as the play requires. This play is harder to do than it looks. Albee’s dead-pan style of acting and speaking here, without real emotional context but with put-on feelings—the characters of Mommy and Daddy especially are “acting”—and the communication of the playwright’s points are not easy to glom onto. There’s a tendency to overplay the subtext, which turns the play into a bad joke, a sort of a soap-opera travesty, or to suppress all affect completely, which destroys Albee’s message. Playing The Sandbox “straight,” so to speak, as if it were some kind of odd Realism, ends up just a disaster of incomprehensibility. The STC cast nailed it, however. I’ve seen a couple of the actors in STC’s Sandbox in other productions, but nothing like this and I can only say that the cast and Neugebauer together got this exactly right.
Mimi Lien’s set, which is somewhat more elaborate than Albee’s description of the scene, still comprises no more than is needed for the play’s action. The whole gives a clear impression of a sunny beach and the sky backdrop brightens under Mark Barton’s lighting for the sunshine of midday and darkens as called for to the dark of night. It has the sharp-edged starkness of an Edward Hopper painting which blends well with Albee’s vision and Neugebauer’s staging. Except for Giron’s cellist, who wears the long, dark, formal gown of a concert soloist, the bathing suits of the other four characters, as designed by Kaye Voyce, are more-or-less mid-20th-century (when the play was written, after all).
Between Sandbox and Drowning is a pause to change the set behind the lowered curtain. A projected sign above the proscenium reads “9 minute pause.” My neighbor wondered why they didn’t use a count-down sign, but when the interval went on longer than nine minutes, I suggested that that was perhaps the reason: what would they do after the clock reached 0? Start counting back up? Go into negative numbers? The whole process is made even more absurd when a bearded young man, who turns out to be actor Nicholas Bruder (Raymond in Funnyhouse), sets an old radio on the stage edge and, surfing the stations, plays pop music through the pause, starting with the Temps’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” (1971). Bruder sits on the edge of the stage as well, smiling a bemused grin.
María Irene Fornés’s Drowning, the evening’s second offering, was written in 1986 as part of Orchards, the collection of plays based on stories by Anton Chekhov commissioned by the Acting Company. Fornés’s assigned tale, also called Drowning [“Утопленник” – utoplennik – which actually means ‘drowned person’], was an 1885 story about a hustler who works the docks trying to make money by jumping off the pier and impersonating a drowning man. After finding a willing customer and bargaining over the fee, the man jumps in, thrashes around in the water, climbs out soaking wet, collects his few kopecks, and goes off into the darkness in wet clothes and unnoticed. (The only English translation in print seems to be in The Unknown Chekhov translated and edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999]. Drowning was also adapted, somewhat more literally than Fornés’s treatment, by Neil Simon as “The Drowned Man” in The Good Doctor, his own 1973 collection of playlets based on Chekhov short stories.)
When the playwright read the story, she nearly asked for a new assignment. “I didn’t even feel there was a complete story there,” Fornés has said, “just two or three pages with an ambivalent ending.”
I couldn’t understand if this was an allegorical situation or if a drowning act was something that was actually done. But I began feeling very moved by this drowning man, who walks away wet and lonely at the end. Even when I wasn’t thinking about the play I was supposed to write, I was thinking about him—his size, his humiliation, the way he boasted about doing the best drowning act possible. I could picture him—a very large man who looks almost like an animal, a combination of a man and a sea lion with the skin of a seal.
The Acting Company’s Orchards played on 22 April-4 May 1986 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village. STC produced Fornés’s Drowning (on a two-play bill with Mud), from 26 September to 10 October 1999 as part of her residency season at the company’s home at the time, the Peter Norton Space on far-west Theatre Row. There’ve also been occasional regional and university productions, but the play’s elaborate makeup requirements, including major prosthetics, along with its thematic obscurity render Drowning less popular than The Sandbox.
In the end, Fornés’s three-scene, 30-minute play, more Surrealist than Absurdist, has only the slimmest relation to Chekhov’s story; the Cuban-born playwright seems to have taken nothing but the sense of loneliness and dejection she felt in the tale. She also seems to have based her concept for a drama on the vision of the character she conjured, the “combination of a man and a sea lion with the skin of a seal”; her script describes the plays characters as having “heads . . . large and shapeless, like potatoes. Their skin is dark. Their flesh is shiny and oily. . . . Their bodies are also like potatoes.” The makeup and prostheses used in the Signature Plays, designed by Voyce, seem to be based on the 1999 design (conceived by Teresa Snider-Stein and built by Den Design Studio).
Gone are the pier, the drowning-man impersonator, the performance, and the paying customer, along with anything remotely suggesting the 19th century. María Irene Fornés’s Drowning takes place in what looks like the lunch room of a factory (or, to be honest, a cafeteria in Soviet-era Russia in which I might have eaten back in 1965)—bleak, dim, with beige tiled walls, a linoleum floor, and a couple of metal café tables with metal chairs. Even the window panes are opaque. Two grotesque figures who look like some kind of undersea creatures with misshapen bodies, a little like the figures in paintings by Fernando Botero, sit at the table at stage right. (One reviewer in 1999 remarked on the characters’ “enormous jowls” which could also look like gills.) They speak and move very slowly, as if they were under water. The child-like innocent, Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings), and his more knowledgeable companion, Roe (Sahr Ngaujah), are waiting for Stephen (Frank Wood).
Roe has a folded newspaper on the table and Pea spots it. Never having seen such a things, he exclaims, “My God, what is it?” Roe explains what a newspaper is and Pea looks at it and finds the photograph of a woman. “She’s beautiful. I would like to look at her. In the flesh,” says Pea wishfully. As Pea and Roe talk, Stephen arrives. In scene two, all of two lines long, Pea has his head on the table, sleeping. Stephen says of Pea, “He is very kind and he could not do harm to anyone,” to which Roe replies, “Yes. And I don’t want any harm to come to him either because he’s good.” In scene three, some time has passed and Pea is agitated. He’s fallen in love with the woman in the photo and has met her, but she’s repulsed by him. Pea’s despondent. He asks Roe, “Do you know what it is to need someone? The feeling is much deeper than words can ever say. Do you know what despair is? Anguish?” Roe responds, “What a terrible thing to see a young man like you destroyed like this. Suffering like this.” Pea sighs, “Is this why we have come to life? To love like this? And hurt like this?” and puts his head down on the table again. Roe laments to Stephen, “He’s drowning. He hurts too much.” The lights go to black.
I get that this is supposed to express unbearable sorrow and sadness, but beyond that, Fornés’s meaning is beyond me. (Another 1999 reviewer offered that Drowning was “closer to a staged poem (or is it a painting?) than a play.”) Why must the characters be grotesques? Is that supposed to give us distance? If the characters looked human, would we be lost in sentiment? What’s the point of the slow-motion movement and speech? Another alienating technique? Chekhov’s story is darkly funny, but Fornés’s take is unrelentingly, almost oppressively melancholy. After the provocative but spritely Sandbox, Drowning felt like someone had jammed on the brakes of the evening; my speedy little go-cart got bogged down on a patch of muddy track. Bummer!
If bleak is Fornés’s intent, Lien’s characterless cafeteria and Barton’s somber lighting certainly establish that atmosphere. No one I know would relish eating there or even stopping for a cup of coffee, much less spending any appreciable time there. Voyce’s costumes and makeup, whether or not they were derived from STC’s 1999 concepts, evoke the descriptions in Fornés’s text with even more distance from humanity than the Acting Company’s designs seem to have (in photos of the production) in 1986. All together, this is an alien environment with superficial resemblances to a human world in which Neugebauer’s (based on Fornés’s) misshapen beings express near-human feelings of loss, despair, and sorrow. As far as I can judge, the director has devised a production that illustrates the playwright’s text faithfully, with the help of the actors who seem to have embodied the characters fully—but has she made Fornés’s message clear (assuming there is one)? Well, not to me, in any case.
Following the intermission, Signature Plays presents Adrienne Kennedy’s arresting and halucinatory 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro, begun in 1961 while traveling in Africa, the first of her plays to be produced. It premièred at the East End Theater in what is now New York City’s NoHo district in January 1964; the production won Kennedy her first Obie Award for Distinguished Play (shared with Dutchman by LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka). Signature produced the play from 22 September to 22 October 1995 on a bill with Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White as part of Adrienne Kennedy’s residency at the company, and the Classical Theatre of Harlem presented Funnyhouse in February 2006.
Kennedy has written that Funnyhouse was formed in her mind when she traveled to Europe and Africa with her family in the fall of 1960. In London, she saw the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace and when they arrived in Ghana, pictures of Patrice Lamumba were on posters and small cards all over the country. Lamumba was assassinated in Congo on 17 January 1961, soon after the Kennedys arrived in Ghana. Other figures in the play came from similar sources: the Duchess of Hapsburg was associated with a visit to the Chapultapec Palace (Castle) in Mexico City and Jesus was associated in her mind, Kennedy says, with her father, a social worker who left her parents’ Cleveland home in May 1961 to return to Georgia. Kennedy finished Funnyhouse of a Negro in Rome that July.
Funnyhouse of a Negro, which runs about 50 minutes over five scenes, takes place within the mind of the central character, Negro-Sarah. By my figuring, that makes it an Expressionist drama (which depicts the characters’ subjective feelings and psychological dispositions), but with a heavy dose of Symbolism in the mix. It tells the story of Sarah (Crystal Dickinson), a young, light-skinned African-American student—she refers to herself as “yellow”—who lives in New York City, focusing on her inner struggle with her racial identity. The child of a light-skinned mother (Pia Glenn), whom she worships, and a dark-skinned father, whom she despises, Sarah, obsessed with whiteness, spends much of her time trying to come to terms with her feelings about her mixed heritage. The setting is Sarah’s room “on the top floor of a brownstone in the West Nineties,” which is a manifestation of her mind, becoming different locations that Sarah imagines; this is the “funnyhouse,” and it’s run by two white characters, Sarah’s Landlady (Alison Fraser) and her Jewish boyfriend, Raymond (Nicholas Bruder), both of whom mock her and contradict her account of events. Various historical figures represent Sarah’s black and white heritage, her alter-egos: Queen Victoria Regina (April Matthis), the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy), Patrice Lumumba (Sahr Ngaujah), and Jesus (Mikéah Ernest Jennings).
Sarah’s room depicts her obsession with whiteness, featuring prominently a large, white statue of Queen Victoria. In the first scene, the room becomes the Queen’s chamber for a scene between Victoria and the Duchess—who voice different aspects of Sarah’s thoughts. In a subsequent scene, for instance, Raymond and the Queen talk about the Duchess’s “father,” who’s really Sarah’s father. There’s a constant knocking sound under the rest of the play, the attempts by Sarah’s father, whom we learn was a would-be revolutionary who married Sarah’s mother and took her to Africa, to reach her. When Sarah’s mother stopped loving Sarah’s father and became aloof, he raped her and Sarah was the child of that rape. Sarah’s mother lost all her hair and ended up in an asylum. The hair falling out is a recurring image in Funnyhouse and we learn that the Queen is losing her hair, too, which means that Sarah’s hair is falling out, since both the Duchess and Victoria are avatars of Sarah. Sarah has already told us that her pale complexion is contradicted by her hair, which is “frizzy, . . . unmistakably Negro kinky hair,” so the loss of her hair is the result of the conflict between her white side and her black side which can’t exist together.
The Queen and the Duchess, who wear white-face makeup, are manifestations of Sarah’s white persona, but the next scene is a speech by the Congolese revolutionary leader Patrice Lamumba, though his identity isn’t revealed to us yet, representing Sarah’s black self. In following scenes, most of this is repeated, like a litany, with the words coming out of the mouths of different characters—which sometimes gives them different meanings. Little by little, we learn more details of Sarah’s life, both past and present; it’s not revealed in a linear fashion, but we have to piece the biography together as it comes to us haphazardly. As in a dream, the plot of Funnyhouse isn’t straightforward, either, and it’s hard to follow if the spectator loses focus even for a few minutes. (It would be advisable to read the play beforehand perhaps, although that spoils the shock value of the surprises Kennedy embedded in the play. I won’t provide any more of the plot here for that reason—and also because it becomes impossibly convoluted to recount and read.) Because Funnyhouse of a Negro takes place inside Sarah’s head, we’re supposed to gain some understanding of the real sense of being trapped and alienated felt by an African-American woman in America. It was undoubtedly a stronger feeling in the mid-’60s, when Kennedy wrote the pay, than now—but I imagine, on the evidence of the racial issues that today are in the news all the time, that it’s still prevalent among black Americans as well as other marginalized and disenfranchised minorities. (I wonder, for instance, how an American Muslim sitting in the Griffin Theatre might respond to Funnyhouse.)
Funnyhouse of a Negro is a tough play to follow and, given that, an even tougher one to interpret. (I suspect that it will mean somewhat different things to different viewers—and some will probably get little or nothing out of it.) My instant reaction was: I have to think about this one before I know what I saw. Whereas Drowning just left me numb and dumbfounded, Funnyhouse prompted me, first, not to dismiss it out of hand and, second, to go home and examine what I’d taken away. (I confess: I also did a little reading—and I ultimately bought the text.) Not infrequently, I figure out what I got from a play, what it meant to me, when I write my report for ROT, but in the case of Funnyhouse, I still don’t really know.
I can, however, make some comments on the production. So, first, Neugebauer’s staging is strong and firm; I imagine it could be easy for Funnyhouse to get away from a director who can’t rein it in. (Casting is also clearly a vital task for a play like this, and I can’t fault Neugebauer’s choices here in the least.) As hard as it was for me to keep everything sorted out, the director does her best with Kennedy’s complex and convoluted text to make it accessible. She and her cast also keep the energy level up so that the play moves with vigor, but without leaving me behind. I also have to compliment the actors for navigating this labyrinth of a play, with so many twists and cul-de-sacs, flights of dream-like action and speech, nightmarish images, and, for African-American actors I’d imagine, difficult ideas. (I did a production of Marat/Sade in college, playing one of the asylum inmates in de Sade’s play-within-the-play, and after many weeks of rehearsals and performances, it had gotten inside my psyche—and that of some of my castmates as well—so that I began behaving oddly until the spirits conjured up by Peter Weiss were exorcised after the run ended. I wonder if any of the cast of Funnyhouse of a Negro is experiencing anything similar.)
Lien’s cavernous room, darkly lit by Barton so that it’s shadowy and ominous, is the setting for anyone’s nightmare. The long staircase from a doorway high above the stage floor gives the room the air of a dungeon With Wolcott’s soundscape, eerie original music plus that constant knocking, the whole environment is spooky. Voyce’s costumes created a world of both fantasy and menace, alternatingly and sometimes simultaneously. I have no idea what it’d be like to be inside someone’s mind, especially one off balance like Sarah’s, but if it’s anything like Funnyhouse, I sure wouldn’t want to go there for real.
Show-Score gave the Signature Plays a score of 73 based on its tally of 14 reviews. (Coverage was meager. Shame on you, New York papers and websites!) The presentation garnered 64% positive reviews, 14% negative, and 22% mixed. The New York Times got the second-highest rating in a three-way tie. Calling the three one-acts “the theatrical equivalent of [funhouse] mirrors,” Ben Brantley dubbed the Signature Plays a “tasty bill” and labeled Neugebauer’s direction “accomplished.” He declared that each short play “in its own way slyly reflects the nightmare within the American dream.” He called Sandbox a “stark little diversion” in which “you’ll still find much to savor and shiver over.” It has “the stylish self-sufficiency of a crisply turned epigram” that “doesn’t have an ounce of superfluous fat.” Drowning’s “a gentle paean to the laboriousness and loneliness of living small,” continued Brantley, a “deeply compassionate elegy on the confounding sorrows of day-to-day existence.” The Timesman warned, “The glacier-paced interactions of the actors here may initially madden you; by the end, the sense of the oppressive weight that controls their motions breaks your heart.” Funnyhouse, the Times reviewer wrote, is the “most visually arresting” of the three pieces, “its flamboyant patterns have been etched in acid.” Of the entire production, Brantley wrote: “In every case, this first-rate creative team has done its job. That is to say, they’ve created unfamiliar worlds that somehow feel deeply, ineffably familiar—the sort of places that you visit as you’re falling asleep. And all the places you’ve ever lived, and all the people you’ve ever been, start to mingle and merge into one eerie, endlessly reflected entity.”
The reviewer for the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column declared that “it is fascinating to hear language that is this imaginative and authentic again.” The anonymous review-writer praised the actors especially. David Cote on Time Out New York posited that an evening of three plays about death “might sound like a numbing two hours, but it’s not when the language is crafted by such giants of American experimental theater.” He called Sandbox a “metatheatrical sketch” that’s “both satiric and tender, . . . its wryly funny laughs drying in your throat.” Drowning is “brief and utterly bizarre” and a “creepy dream state.” Cote described Funnyhouse as a “metaphysical onslaught” and pronounced it “the program’s . . . most satisfying offering.” He declared in the end, “I bet you won’t see anything so fearlessly weird and original all year.”
On Cultural Weekly, David Sheward felt that Sandbox “provides a darkly comic take on mortality and jabs at middle-class suppression of emotion” and “Albee greets the unknown with a sardonic chuckle rather than a scream of terror.” Drowning, said Sheward, “is much bleaker and more confounding”; the staging, however, “is so slowly paced and obscure it fails to generate any of the insights of the human condition usually associated with” Chekhov. To conclude what Sheward labeled an “uneven evening,” Signature Plays offered a “nightmare of a play,” Funnyhouse of a Negro, which “has its moments of effective anguish,” but otherwise Neugebauer directed it “like a Hammer House of Horror screamfest.” The CW reviewer concluded that Neugebauer “only gets the right tone for the witty Sandbox. She lets Drowning drown and Funnyhouse is more like a haunted house.” On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel Leiter declared that Sandbox “seems more interesting as an artifact from Albee’s pre-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? experimental phase, than as a living drama.” The central performances in Drowning “help make this surreal piece the most affecting of the generally unaffecting evening,” Leiter found, and the slow-motion approach makes the play “subtly evocative and moving.” Calling Funnyhouse “the pièce de résistance” of the bill, the blogger found that it “gradually loses any emotional connection with its audience. Like what happens to its heroine, it leaves them hanging at the end.” In the end, Leiter decided, “I suspect it will be of interest chiefly to academics and theatre students; for the general theatregoer, not so much.”
Pete Hempstead of TheaterMania dubbed the Signature Plays “a trio of brilliant plays,” adding that Neugebauer’s “direction is nothing short of extraordinary” and the cast gives “impeccable performances.” The three plays combine to generate “two humorous and frightening hours of theater.” The Sandbox, said Hempstead, is “disconcerting though undeniably playful” and Drowning is “subdued.” Funnyhouse, wrote the TM reviewer, is “nightmarish” and “phantasmagoric,” told in “a series of gothic-tinged scenes.” With the help of Barton’s “astounding lighting techniques” and Walcott’s “unsettling music and jarring sound design,” Neugebauer “creates a sublime atmosphere of dread and horror.” Hempstead’s conclusion was that the triple bill “is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain.” On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray warned that the Signature Plays’ “entries themselves are not exactly of the cheery sort.” They are, though, “all major pieces worthy of examination, and given thoughtful, well-considered mountings” at STC. As a result, “you get . . . a potent, pungent look at . . . three different towering American theatre artists.” Describing Sandbox as “a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it play . . . that nonetheless runs surprisingly deep,” the TB review-writer found that “its tart writing and grinning brutality create a seamless blend between comedy and tragedy.” Drowning, posited the blogger, documents “the genesis and aftermath of an impossible dream gone awry” and because of the “lugubrious treatment” given the play “ it fails to satisfy.” Funnyhouse, on the other hand, “delivers the consummate greater jolts” because it “receives the clarifying respect it deserves.” Neugebauer and the design team have created “an imposing production that reflects the darkness at work.”
So, although I never considered the dichotomous nature of a bill of one-acts when I subscribed to the Signature season or booked the seats for the Signature Plays some weeks ago, it came to my attention at the program’s intermission. Buoyed up by Albee’s Sandbox, dropped precipitously by Fornés’s Drowning, I was soon to be left a little adrift by Kennedy’s Funnyhouse. That’s the nature of the genre, however, and it has given me something about which to write.
[In addition to the dearth of reviews of this production across the media, there were several that aren’t represented here even though they did cover the Signature Plays. The notices were so devoid of quotable passages that I couldn’t cite them; the reviewers devoted their columns almost entirely to plot descriptions and summaries.]