Forever Fresh

Two of Edward Albee's earliest one-acts, The American Dream and The Zoo Story, have been pulled from the shelf and dusted off for the Alley's Neuhaus Arena Stage. This stunning pair explains why Albee has become an icon of the American theater. These bite-sized plays, directed by the playwright himself, are eccentric and funny, smart and enigmatic, and just as original and unusual today as in the early '60s, when they were first produced off-Broadway to hip-high stacks of critical acclaim.

Strangely, in a preshow interview, Albee worried that '90s Americans who "aren't as given to self-mockery as they used to be" wouldn't "be quite so amused" by The American Dream as were his original audiences. The opening-night crowd, which seemed capable of an endless array of girlish giggles, crowing cackles and snorting horselaughs, assuaged the writer's fears. We may take ourselves too seriously these days, but Albee's wickedly sardonic play is a riot. And we still like to laugh.

The American Dream defies labels. It's absurdist, illusory and yet strangely familiar as it goes about condemning the mutant mores of the American middle class, whose members love money and social recognition more than they do one another. This play, which Albee has said is "a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity," castigates all of us who buy into an American dream that has urged us to sell our collective souls for freeways of slick, fast cars, warehouses of room-sized TVs and "neighborhoods" jammed with houses as big as some small countries.

But Albee offers more than his startling writing. Indeed, his cast is brilliant, and his direction is flawless. Mommy (Bonnie Gallup) and Daddy (Phil Fisher) sit on stage in their beige, boring living room, discussing hats and threatening Grandma (Bettye Fitzpatrick) with the old-folks home. Wearing a fancy red dress and satin high heels, Gallup's Mommy is the model of middle-class myopia. She lives for power and recognition. And in her world, Mrs. Barker (Jean Proctor), chairwoman of the Ladies Club, is the master. No matter that Mrs. Barker is cruel and manipulative or comes over and promptly takes off her dress, making Daddy confess that he "just blushed and giggled and went sticky wet." Power is power.

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Albee delights in exploding and exposing the arbitrary nature of the power of social conventions. Mrs. Barker does more than disrobe. She offers to smoke.

"Oh, that isn't necessary," says Mommy.
"I don't mind if I do," says Mrs. Barker.
"No; no, don't. Really."

"I don't mind..." says Mrs. Barker, as though she'd being doing us all a favor if she would.

In Albee's world everything is turned backward. Only Grandma makes sense. And Fitzpatrick takes full advantage of all Grandma's astute and hysterical observations of what America has become. It's Grandma who knows that the American dream has become nothing more than a beautiful body and face with no internal life at all. As a collective, we have lost "the capacity to feel anything." We accept the "syntax" around us and have lost our "innocence" and our "heart."

It's rare for a play to remain utterly relevant 40 years after it was written. This long-lasting relevance must be the mark of real art.

The Zoo Story, Albee's first play, is ambitious. It, too, concerns the obliterating effects of an easy middle-class life on the psyche. But in this play, Albee focuses more exclusively on the metaphysical corruption that comes with too much money and too little angst.

Peter (James Belcher) is a well-paid publisher who forgets that one day he will die. He lives an upper-crust life with his wife, two daughters, two parakeets and cats, who apparently have taken Peter's attention away from the hard work of self-awareness. It takes an encounter with Jerry (Curtis Billings), a strange and frightening transient, to wake Peter to the terrifying truth of life: One day we will die, and no matter how much money we have, we only have so much time on this earth in which to live our lives.

Choose wisely. It is an absurdist morality tale of the highest order.
While the play is still relevant, there is something off in the rhythms of this production. Perhaps Billings's Jerry is simply too young to carry the weight of this production (some of his speeches are pages long). His performance is intelligent and angry and energetic (sweat pours from his brow), but for some reason it's simply not nuanced enough to bring Albee's complex ideas into tack-sharp focus.

Thus Jerry's endless speeches become a muddle of rage without the moments of earth-deep understanding that Albee's strange words require. It might be better for Billings and Belcher to switch places. They both looked more the parts into which they were cast, although something about each actor's inner rhythms seemed more suited to fit the other character.

As a jubilant and rising star in 1960, Albee said, "I am at just the beginning of what I hope will be a long and satisfying life in the theater." Nearly 40 years later, with three Pulitzers on his resume, Albee's early work is still surprising, funny and rich with intellect and imagination.

The American Dream and The Zoo Story runs through March 28 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, (713)228-8421. $36-$40.

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