I’ve Got You, Babe: Mr. Albee’s Inner Child

The longer a successful dramatist lives, the more he’s sure

to go out of fashion. It seems to be an axiom in a punishing trade that almost

every major playwright writes a small cluster of great plays when young,

destined to become capriciously “unfashionable” over time. The plays are then

rediscovered when it’s too late-too late for the disillusioned dramatist,

anyway. But Edward Albee is an exception, and a rare one.

He’s an unusual example of a dramatist who came back into

fashion during his own lifetime. It happened to Noël Coward during what he

called his Second Coming. The later work of Tennessee Williams, on the other

hand, was lost in the wilderness. At 72, Mr. Albee’s motto could be “No

surrender!” or “Fuck ‘em!”

He’s like a bloodied warrior of theater whose valor in the

face of the enemy-the “enemy” being anyone who expresses even a doubt or two

about his work-is thrilling and admirable. But I’ve wondered before whether

there exists a leading dramatist who’s written such major and minor plays as

Mr. Albee. The man who revolutionized the possibilities of modern American

drama with Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf also

created the self-imploding portrait of his own martyrdom in 1981 with The Man Who Had Three Arms . (It was the

one that was said to have done him in.) His “return” with the 1994 New York

production of Three Tall Women , the

beautiful, elegiac memory play inspired by his icily remote adoptive mother,

reminded people that he was actually alive and kicking (and a great dramatist).

But the celebratory aspects of Albee reborn have proved indiscriminate. Three Tall Women led, among much, to the

recent revival of his sour, soupy 1964 problem play about the abuse of

innocence, Tiny Alice , and an

unhealthy dollop of over-praise for a play that surely remains a sour,

unsolvable problem.

Some of my colleagues are also raving about Mr. Albee’s

latest drama, The Play About the Baby ,

which continues his obsessive themes of lost innocence and memory, and the

self-deluding aspects of comforting illusion versus bruised, tragic reality. As

the vaudevillian character known as Man advises us: “Pay attention to this,

what’s true and what isn’t is a tricky business, no?”

Don’t you believe it.

Don’t be cowed . It’s Mr. Albee’s

convenient self-fulfilling prophesy.

What’s true or false is a tricky

business when he’s conducting it as manipulatively as this. The Play About the Baby was first

produced at the Almeida in London in 1998 where it received, to put it

politely, very mixed reviews. Those who liked it saw it as a refreshingly

amusing-and disturbing-chamber piece about the death of idealized childhood (as

opposed to a tragicomedy of Dante-esque proportions). Those who remained neutral

were simply confused. And those who rejected it felt that Mr. Albee had merely

recycled his past work and even trivialized himself.

As with Who’s Afraid

of Virginia Woolf , an elderly couple in The

Play About the Baby introduces a younger couple into the malevolent ways of

the world. Virginia Woolf famously

has its imaginary baby. The new play-call it a symbolic fable-is about a real

baby who’s stolen from newlyweds named Boy and Girl by two mysterious visitors

named Man and Woman, who persuade them there never was a child in the first

place.

Brutal loss-the loss of a child or childhood self-is a

recurring Albee theme and part of his own biography. He has returned to the

poisoned well, as it were, in The Play

About the Baby, where the message is: Better to re-invent reality than live

with unacceptable truth. “Our reality is determined by our need,” says the Man.

“The greater need rules the game.”

I must say that when I

saw the London production, it induced in me a great need to flee. I belonged to

that morose faction of the audience at the Almeida who couldn’t understand why

everyone else was convulsed with laughter and worse, Deep in Thought. It seemed

to me then-and now, alas-that Mr. Albee had written an allegorical romp dressed

up as a Serious Statement. The vaudevillian form of the piece wasn’t in a new

style, as some claim. Characters bursting into the ironic counterpoint of

music-hall song were first perfected by Dennis Potter in his glorious The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven . Mr. Albee’s Play About the Baby is squarely in the

tried and true tradition of Pirandello and the Theater of the Absurd.

“What! What was that?” exclaims Woman, as the Boy and Girl

run nakedly across the stage. “Did two people just run nakedly across the

stage, giggling? Yes? Well … why not?”

The London production wasn’t helped by the Royal Shakespeare

stalwart, Alan Howard, playing the Man opposite Frances de la Tour’s Woman.

Mr. Howard’s renowned skills do not include an easeful sense

of comedy, and Ms. de la Tour was overcompensating with too much of an acting

storm. Good to report then that the New York production, directed by David

Esbjornson with great care and good humor, is blessed with two superlative

performances from Brian Murray as the Man and Marian Seldes as the Woman. The

two veterans are at the peak of their considerable powers here-a pleasure to

see them holding the stage, and us, in the palm of their hands. What a

difference an actor makes! The comic flair

and experience of Mr. Murray and Ms. Seldes are beyond question. They

turn on a dime and give the piece its glue with innately commanding, lethal

charm.

“I’m not an actress; I

want you to know that right off,” Ms. Seldes’ Woman informs us so amusingly at

the start. “I am a trifle …

theatrical.” To see and hear the elegant, beadily intelligent Ms. Seldes (who,

it’s no secret, can be a trifle

theatrical) reminisce about a probably invented affair long, long ago-“A

painter hanged himself for the love of me”-is to experience one of the great

theater treats. Mr. Murray is our relaxed vaudevillian host. “Hello there!” he

greets us, beaming. Or later: “Oh what a wangled teb we weave!” Beware the

stranger with the smile who might be a jolly bank manager. He goads and needles

in his absent-minded, idle way until it’s time to deliver the executioner’s

song.

Mr. Murray is an actor who in a second can transform

amiability into the killer’s smirk. At the close, the Boy and Girl are pleading

for their innocent lives, begging to live in their unspoilt Eden a little longer.

“Give us some time. Please?”

“Time’s up,” says the Man,

and Mr. Murray makes the moment memorable.

But is the play? Good though David Burtka and Kathleen Early

are as the Boy and Girl, their innocence is contrived. But then, Mr. Albee has

re-created the innocence of youth in the romantic form of some neo–woodland

fantasy where giddy, naked adolescents frolic in an idealized Eden. The

simple-mindedness of his message is signaled by the giant pacifier-or monstrous

tit-of John Arnone’s nursery set. There are one too many random diversions

teasing away the time quite innocuously-about writers, sentimental movies,

pretending to be blind, hard-ons, the con games of evil gypsies who steal money

and children. It is unremarkable for Mr. Albee to keep pointing out to us that

people often cope with reality by avoiding it. But it is the blatancy of his

oft-repeated message that proves glib.

“If you have no wounds, how can you know if you’re alive? If

you have no scar, how do you know who you are …?” And again: “If you

don’t have the wound of a broken heart, how can you know you’re alive?” And one

positively final time: “Wounds, children, wounds. Learn from it. Without

wounds, what are you?”

This mantra of discontent is jaded, not tragic. Mr. Albee is

like the Wicked Witch cursing the innocent young with dire warnings about

growing up. “Listen to me, my lovelies!” the Wicked Witch tells us, raising a

gnarled hand to the heavens. “Better you know it now. Life is horrible. Life

sucks! Mark my wise words. You’ll thank me for them one day.”