Monday, April 30, 2012

The Play from Tedium

Signature Theatre's production of Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque demonstrates the company's mandate - representing the range of a playwright's work.

This 1978 play was written in the years between two great plays - Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991), both Pulitzer Prize winners. Not that Albee was exactly idle during these years; there were five other plays, but none of them reached the heights of Seascape or Women, or earlier work like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Dubuque seems to start off in Virginia Woolf territory, only it's three couples instead of two having a late-night drink-up and cage match. Long-legged, elegant Jo (Laila Robins) is mistress of the caustic quip and launches zingers from an Eames chair as she sizes up the weaknesses of the others. Husband Sam (Michael Hayden) seems to be playing a role as genial host and master of the suburban house.

Pugnacious Fred (C.J. Wilson) is a bully with a much-younger girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio) who is apparently a hapless airhead. Conventional Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) accompanies hand-wringing, neurotic doormat Lucinda (Catherine Curtin). 

Again, like Woolf, there is games-playing going on. As the curtain rises, Sam is starting "Twenty Questions" with the fraught query, "Who am I?" But the apparently sociable evening immediately heads off the rails as Jo addresses the audience with the frank admission that she is dying. Since the atmosphere is one of games-playing, one has some doubt at first as to whether she actually is dying.

As the evening progresses, a second game takes place when Carol, who's not as clueless as she first seems, and Sam pretend he assaulted her in another room - but it's just a put-on to get a reaction out of the others. Pretty soon, Jo leaves no doubt that she is dying, doubled up and screaming in pain.

In the second act, the morning after, Sam descends the winding stair of John Arnone's gorgeous set to find yet another couple in his living room - the elegant, white-haired Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and Oscar (Peter Francis James). Sam opens the act with the question, "Who are you?"

They are Death, of course, come to take Jo and you can see it coming a mile away. With not much surprise left in the text and much screaming from the dying Jo and several of the other characters, the play visits the house of tedium. Albee's nihilistic view sees no particular peace in death, certainly no religious victory, and not much wisdom. So what is left? "Nothing is retained. Nothing," Oscar says. "There is only one thing that matters: Who am I?" Sam says.

All right, if finding truth in identity is what matters, then what has Jo found? Not much but witty, savage assaults on the existential inevitable. While Virginia Woolf inhabits equally bleak territory, wondering how the characters in that play are going to live proves to be more interesting than considering how one in Dubuque is going to die. Nevertheless, seeing this play provides a deeper understanding of this great writer's body of work. 

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