A Family Feuds Stage-Center As Poor Dad Dies Quietly in Corner

Another day, another Edward Albee. The Albee productions dominating the marquees these days seem to outnumber even those of the sainted Sondheim. Nonetheless, I was glad to have a chance to see his 1970 All Over at the Roundabout’s Gramercy Theatre. The play (which I hadn’t seen before) followed Mr. Albee’s A Delicate Balance -for me, his best play in a long and variable career. All Over wasn’t well-received when it was first produced in New York or in London (with Peggy Ashcroft). It’s about death, which didn’t help, perhaps. But all of Mr. Albee’s plays are about death, one way or another.

At least All Over isn’t about the tragic crackup of a happy marriage that’s caused by a heterosexual goat with come-hither eyes; we must count our blessings on that score. The catalyst for family wreckage in All Over is the human figure of a famous and wealthy man who’s on the verge of death. We never see him or hear him. (Nor do we learn why he’s so famous, though the media is keeping vigil outside his home). We glimpse the four-poster bed of this powerful patriarch at the rear of his grand sitting room, where various figures-his wife and long-time mistress among them-gather for his last two hours. Mr. Albee has written a fugue, not without humor, which might have been entitled Waiting for Death .

But he has also written a kind of symbol or metaphor-his precision becomes vague-with each character listed as an archetypal Wife, Daughter, Son, Mistress, Best Friend, etc. The nameless form has its pretensions, like the meaningful characters called Clown or Everyman who make appearances in heavily symbolic musicals that cause hearts to sink a bit. Mr. Albee’s archetypes, even when played by such extraordinarily fine actresses as Rosemary Harris (the Wife) and Michael Learned (the Mistress), aren’t quite flesh and blood until too late in the game. They represent flesh and blood-blue, putrid or indomitable-and the outcome is emotionally removed with its formal set pieces and odd, confessional digressions until the explosions inevitably come.

The chill of Emily Mann’s production is evident from the outset in the studied repression and poise of Ms. Harris’ cruel matriarch, who together with the others is seated stiffly like wan WASP’s in a boozeless funeral parlor. The ground is set, and it’s familiar. By now, Mr. Albee’s brand of electric bitchery is anticipated as much as his emasculating women: It’s no revelation that the Wife is also the Ogre Mother, the Son is the Emasculated One and the Daughter is the Daughter from Hell. “Does anyone love me?” the middle-aged cow pleads at one melodramatic point, and the entire audience might feel inclined to yell back, “No!” Her patrician mother’s answer is better: “Do you love anyone?”

But who ruined the Daughter (perfectly played by Pamela Nyberg) and the adult, feckless Son (John Carter, exactly, touchingly right as a lame duck)? Mr. Albee is at his best in murderous family conflicts of honeyed put-downs, of buttoned-up resentments and savage contempt. “You are not a very kind woman,” the Mistress curtly admonishes the Daughter, whose refined Medea of a mother explains with her custom-made spite, “She has been raised at her mother’s knee.”

Then again, the Son’s failure to live up to the legacy of his famous father makes him easy meat for Mother. “Aren’t you up to it?” she asks him when he excuses himself from the room after breaking down in tears. “Not up to you, Mother; never was,” he replies softly.

The play moves us in such moments of sibling helplessness and wounded need. But we wonder: Where’s the family patriarch in all this? His presence is felt, not his reality. The unseen, all-powerful father is a “mystery” only because Mr. Albee withholds essential information about him. No one among this self-possessed lot really explains the influence the shadowy dying man had over their lives. No one brings him much to life, except in sketchy outline. Mr. Albee’s focus is on the Wife in tandem with the Mistress. The beaten children are along for the bumpy ride. The forlorn, dreary Best Friend tells a forlorn, dreary tale or two about his wife who went mad. (I don’t blame her.) The ancient family Doctor digresses mistily about his youthful prison service and dreams of buggery with great-nephews with long blond hair. The Wife has her sentimental memories, her sour contempt and her disturbing dreams. The dignified Mistress-the only sensible, grounded person in the entire group-has her tales of senile grandparents, of loving another woman’s husband and her first fuck. But where’s Dad, eh? Where’s Dad, poor Dad?

All Over is an uneven, sputtering script when Mr. Albee gives way to meandering, talky party-pieces and melodrama. (The sudden entrance of the Evil Press-let in by the Evil Daughter-closes the first act with a convenient, near-lunatic bang). Mr. Albee rarely misses a chance to play the persnickety grammarian, but some of his stories are surprisingly convoluted and arch. Here’s the old Nurse (given a sparky, eccentric turn by that Albee specialist, Myra Carter of Three Tall Women ) as she tells an arbitrary anecdote about a Dr. Dey who was presumed to have gone down with the Titanic . Bear with her:

“Dey went down with what we all go down with, and one day , you will forgive the pun, he realized the burning far too up in the chest, and the sense of the kidneys saying they can not go on, and the sudden knowledge that it has all gone on … from what central, possibly stoppable place-like eating that last, unwanted shard, that salad, breathing that air from the top of … where?-that one thing we are born to discover and never find. ( Pause .) He locused in on his killer, and he looked on it and he said, ‘I will not have you.’ ( Pause .) And so he booked on the Titanic , of course .”

Well, of course he did, and Ms. Carter almost makes sense of it. She makes good-and amusing-sense of everything else. Her Nurse has a dark-humored touch of Samuel Beckett. “Eat fish and raw vegetables and fruit; avoid everything you like,” she advises the overweight Son. “Except sex; have a lot of that: fish, raw vegetables, fruit and sex.” The embarrassed Son stammers his thanks. “Eggs, red flesh, milk-cheese-butter, nuts, most starches ‘cept potatoes and rice,” she blithely continues. “All bad for you; ignore them. Two whiskeys before dinner, a glass of good Burgundy with it, and sex before you go to sleep. That’ll do the trick. Keep you going.”

“For?” the Son inquires.

“Until it’s the proper time for you to die,” she answers. “No point in rushing it.”

“Death; death; death; death; death …. ” the Daughter mutters in a mantra of weariness.

The Nurse takes a drag on her cigarette: “Death, yes; well, it gets us where we live, doesn’t it?”

So Mr. Albee’s death watch goes-until, at last, the honest candor and emotion of the last scene between the Wife and the Mistress, partners in grief. Each wonders where life will take them when the love of their life dies. “I don’t know ,” says the Mistress. “I’ve thought about it, of course, and nothing seems much good. I’m not a drinker, and I’m far too old for drugs. I’ve thought of taking a very long trip, of going places I’ve not been before- we’ve not been …. “

The Wife begins, “I’ve been practicing widowhood for so many years that I don’t know what effect the fact will have on me. Maybe none. I’ve settled into a life which is comfortable, interesting, and useful, and I contemplate no change. You never know, though. It may be I have told myself … all lies, and I am no more prepared for what will happen-when? tonight? tomorrow morning?-than I would be were he to shake off the coma, rise up from his bed, put his arms about me, ask my forgiveness for all the years, and take me back …. “

These last moments are the most effective in the play. Mr. Albee captures the misery of yearning beneath the Wife’s hard, steely surface, and Ms. Harris can express it as few others can. When the doctor announces the patriarch’s death, it’s “all over” for her, too. The composed surface of the woman cracks open, and she gives in to common unhappiness. She must hate herself for it.

“Why are you crying!?” the Daughter asks her, as if accusing her of some betrayal of feeling.

Rosemary Harris howls on the word “unhappy” four times, until her final, flat, controlled, “Because I’m unhappy.”