Tall Tales

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women makes one fine play

Albee, who's 62, has a morbidly gleeful disdain of youth -- "haven't you figured out it's downhill from 16?" the older woman taunts the younger -- that may have caused him to paint the junior character as a shallow, unbelievable prig. In the first act, as the lawyer's emissary, she reacts to the old woman's quixotic senility with the intolerance of a teenager; her supposedly youthful arrogance and aloofness ring shallow and flat. In the second act, she's a young woman so starry-eyed and incredulous ("You mean when I meet my dream man!" she says about her future husband) as to be dismissable. She's just a cardboard stand-in for youth, an easy target for the two older women to take potshots at.

But the elderly A is an indomitable and sweeping character. She's compellingly played by Nan Morris, who swoops from cackling glee to desolated frailty, making this unlikable woman into a character we want to support and applaud despite ourselves. If this is Albee's postmortem reconciliation with his mother, she has fared well.

The middle-aged woman, played by Kathleen Butler, is caught betwixt and between. In the first act, Butler does a commendable job as the tolerant and spicy attendant, taking the old woman's abuse with humorous dispatch, colluding with her against the cold youngster, but refusing to buy into the old woman's delusions. ("A person could die and nobody care!" the old woman screeches. "Yes," says the nurse lightly. "Why don't you die?" This tickles the old woman out of her vexed mood. She chortles, "Yes! Why don't I die! Why don't I die!")

But when Butler becomes the middle-aged version of the old woman in Act Two, her character never quite settles into place; she still carries the residue of the nurse's goodwill and second fiddle-hood. Her passion seems mannered and artificial. Never seeming quite comfortable with the transition, Butler even wears her feminine party dress with awkwardness rather than the stately aplomb one would imagine of this wealthy, arrogant society woman who got where she is through the currency of her good looks. Tracy Sallows plays the threadbare role of C with about the same lack of warmth and depth she was given to work with.

On opening night, Albee watched from the audience, and his stand-in -- the silent, passionless son -- watched from the stage as his bitter and indefatigable mother wove her tale. Albee has said that he hoped this play would be an exorcism (you may remember that the third act of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was called "The Exorcism" of George and Martha's dead "ghost" baby), that he hopes thereby to kiss his mother good-bye once and for all. This past year, Alley audiences saw Lynn Redgrave attempt a similar exorcism of her father on the Large Stage, with Shakespeare for My Father. (If this trend continues, the Alley foyers may soon be elbow-to-elbow with ghosts.) But whereas Redgrave was bitter and unforgiving -- to the detriment of her play and her parent -- Albee takes his trademark bitterness and turns it into a tribute. And at least we see now where he got that bitterness from.

Three Tall Women plays through March 11 at the Alley Theater, Large Stage, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me plays through March 25 at the New Heights Theater, 339 West 19th Street, 869-8927.

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