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Tall Tales

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women makes one fine play

Dream state number one: you're 92, have had a stroke, and travel back in time to converse with your former selves. Dream state number two: you're 26 and are visited by your future selves, who can tell you how your life is going to unfold. Dream quandary: suppose your younger and your older selves don't get along? Suppose, in fact, they're repulsed by each other? "I will never become you," shouts the younger self. "I was never you. I deny you," volleys back an older, aged self.

So it goes in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, currently being given its first American performance outside New York by the Alley Theatre. (Albee's relationship with the Alley is long-standing; his Everything in the Garden was the first play to be performed in the theater's Texas Avenue building. He's lived in Houston and served as the Alley's playwright-in-residence since 1990.) Directed by Lawrence Sacharow -- who also directed the New York production -- the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about the life and memories of a dyspeptic, ungenerous woman, now 92, who's very candidly modeled on the playwright's adoptive mother, Francis Cotter Albee. Although Albee had been out of favor with the critics and the public for almost two decades, when Three Tall Women premiered the New York press fell all over itself to proclaim, "He's back!"

This fiery and lyrical work takes place as the tall, old woman approaches death, the "final exhale." The "tall" theme comes out again and again as she describes her wild youthful attractiveness, and her marriage to a short ribald man, the "penguin," who had only one eye but pots of money. She says he liked tall women, as did his father, but he teased her that "you're so tall, you'll cost me a fortune. I can't buy you little things." In the first act, the old woman tells her story to her 52-year-old paid companion and a dapper, 26-year-old woman sent by her lawyer to look into her confused finances. The three women are left unnamed, identified in the program only as A, B and C (A being the oldest, B the next oldest and C the youngest). The act closes as the old woman has a stroke.

The second act moves into the old woman's interior world. Her stroke acts like a dramatic prism, splintering her psyche into three parts -- three tall women, young, middle-aged and old -- which are now played by A, B and C from Act One. Young C wears a cream chiffon frock from the 1920s, middle-aged B wears a maroon velvet cocktail dress from the 1950s and C wears a mannerly dress over her stately and frail old woman's body. The 26-year-old version is eager to learn what's to become of her, whom she'll marry, whether she has children. The two older selves let the younger woman in on what's in store, and take more than a little pleasure in puncturing her rosy, youthful hopes. Both B and C are dead sure that they'll never turn into the acerbic old lady. She, in turn, spurns their very existence.

The 52-year-old B is detachedly curious about her future, only becoming involved when her son enters to keep a mute and dispassionate vigil at the side of the inert body of his mother (played by a mannequin in bed wearing an oxygen mask). B is enraged, and orders her son out of her sight. She had reviled him for what the play hints was his homosexuality; they remained estranged for 20 years. (So it went with Albee and his mother. She disowned him when he was 18 for similar reasons; they didn't speak for more than 20 years, and she left him out of her will.)

The three tall actresses bob and weave about the stage, their meditative interchanges stylized and rhythmically beautiful, like music. Indeed, the playwright has said that, as a boy, he wanted to be a composer. With Albee's characteristic absence of plot, the play's dialogue is given the task of knitting a picture of the old woman's life: the loneliness, the isolation of the individual not only from those closest to her -- husband, silent son -- but from herself. Most especially from herself. And how like Albee is the play's bleakly optimistic ending, which asks: what is the happiest moment of life? The answer? The moment right in front of your face, be you young or old, but for dark and shifting reasons: because you're young and foolishly full of yourself; because there's been "enough shit gone through to have a sense of the shit ahead"; because it's finally all over and you get some release.

But despite the grace of Albee's dialogue and Sacharow's staging, it's hard to ignore Three Tall Women's frequent missteps into outdated and sophomoric philosophizing. The central character herself, the bourgeois old woman, seems an anachronism. What's new here to learn? News flash: women were both prized and despised as ornaments for their wealthy and powerful husbands? The insights into men and women are frustrating in their limitedness. "Men cheat because they're men," we're told, and that's that. The sexual anecdotes -- although built up to with great tittering -- fall flat.

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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