Thus Spoke Edward Albee
Edward Albee's newest script, The Play About the Baby, making its American premiere at the Alley Theatre under the playwright's own direction, begins its journey as a wild carnival ride for the intellect. Spinning and twisting as it goes, the first act scales up and down a great tower of babbling ontological questions. Memory, grief, reality, time, sex, love, fear, political correctness, art -- everything, that is, except the baby -- gets at least a moment on stage during this thrilling rush of theater.
`Set against a stark white stage, this whirligig of ideas ricochets through the audience from four archetypal characters. We are first introduced to both Boy (David Burtka) and Girl (Rebecca Harris) since, as we are told, "where there's a boy there's a girl... well, usually." These two lovely innocents smell of "youth" and frolic about the stage, sometimes naked and always randy, as they go about their business of gooey puppy love. They coo incessantly over each other, saying such things as, "When you let me lick your armpits I almost faint" and "I like your breasts equally." Their newborn cries in the wings. Girl runs off. Boy chases after. They have lots and lots of sex.
Into this Edenic paradise slither two snakes of bitter wisdom, Woman (Marian Seldes) and Man (Earle Hyman). They come, we discover, to wreak some myth-size havoc on the blissful young couple. But not before they spin a few deliciously exotic yarns that reveal Albee's stunning brilliance, which has already earned him three Pulitzer Prizes over his long career. These compelling stories, covering nearly everything from cocktail-party faux pas to pathetic aging artists, are studded with jewels of wit and intelligence. Consider: Is "reality determined by our needs" or "by our experience"? "What's true and what isn't is [a] big business of tricks." And "Nobody dies from not being remembered... maybe from being forgotten." Albee's wry, laconic observations about life buzz like tiny jolts of electricity throughout the play. What's more, they are told by two extraordinary actors.
Hyman's tall, smooth-talking Man moves with devilish dignity. He emasculates Boy with a twist of a stick and whispers all sorts of dark fears into the young man's ear with a terrible urgency. Seldes's Woman is reason enough to see this production. More sorcerer than actress, she simply bewitches the audience. Smart, lyrical and beautifully graceful, she glides across the stage delivering one ripe, scrumptious plum of monologue after another. She could have -- should have -- carried the whole show.
Unfortunately, during the second act, Woman is relegated to small moments of support. What had been a tour de force rumination on the quixotic nature of language, living and all things is distilled down into an ordinary (as ordinary as anything having to do with Albee could be) coming-of-age story in which Boy and Girl must face up to the fact the "all good things" do not come "to all good people." These sorts of sentiments desiccate Albee's wild, luscious jungle of strange ideas, so that the play becomes nothing more than the didactic grumblings of maturity. The second half makes such sage observations as "Without the wound of a broken heart, how can you know you're alive?" While such rhetorical questions as "If you have no wound, how can you know who you are?" ring with all the "wisdom" of a New Age aphorism, they are not nearly as tumultuous and evocative as the more curious statements made in the first half of the play.
The first half is indeed astoundingly grand. The excitement running through the audience during Act I on opening night, Wednesday, April 12, was palpable. "Plays come at you by the ears," says one character, "especially the good ones." Flawed though this one may be, it's fine enough to linger in the ear for days to come.
The Play About the Baby runs through Saturday, May 6, at the Alley Theatre. $32-$49. For more information, call (713)228-8421.
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