Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Play about Edward Albee

Funeral games in The Play About the Baby.

Hub Review readers by now are aware that I have a strong preference for what I like to call (to the consternation of critics who can't imagine what I could possibly mean by this term!) "real plays."  But what is a "real" play, you may ask?  Well, sometimes it's best defined by example; drama may be like porn - you just know it when you see it.  And for a good example of the form (drama, not porn), you can check out Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby, which is playing in a solid production by Exquisite Corps at the BCA through this weekend.

In brief, The Play About the Baby is a real (though perhaps minor) play - or rather a real meta-play: it's essentially Albee's meditation on the dramatic material that he has been mining throughout his dramatic career.  So I suppose it might best be titled The Play About The Play About the Baby.  Or perhaps even The Play About Edward Albee (although unlike such misadventures as The Man With Three Arms, The Play About the Baby treats only the author's thematic, rather than personal, obsessions.)

And what precisely has Edward Albee been obsessed with in his writing life?  Well, this gay adopted son of a childless couple (in which the wife/mother was notoriously caustic) has, perhaps inevitably, been obsessed with the existential problem of sterility. Albee has generally been fascinated by characters - often couples (The Lady from DubuqueA Delicate Balance, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) for whom the usual modes of creating "meaning" (and avoiding the spectre of death) via family life and reproduction have been relentlessly stripped away.  Indeed, that very stripping generally constitutes the central action of the playwright's dramas - which often end with the question What remains? once his characters have admitted that children offer only illusory hopes, that all faiths are inevitably false, and that every form of optimism is essentially empty.

In The Play About the Baby, this development has been abstracted to its essence.  In a kind of open, featureless theatrical space, we meet Boy and Girl, seeming newlyweds who are besotted with each other, and who have just produced an (offstage) infant.   For a time, this sweet, slightly stupid Adam and Eve happily frolic in their erotic Eden, in which everything seems possible (and in which Albee slyly insinuates their innocent perversity - Boy likes to suckle at Girl's breast right along with Baby).

They are soon stalked, however, by the vaguely menacing Man and Woman, voices of weary, sardonic experience who might be gypsies, or salespeople, or - well, perhaps some unnamable, universal threat to innocence.  Then again, maybe they're just actors ("I love this speech!" one of them coos about his own lines).

But whatever and whoever they are, we eventually gather that Man and Woman are after the baby - and soon enough, the infant has disappeared.  But has it been killed?  Kidnapped?  It doesn't seem to matter.  Instead, what comes next is an extended meditation on grief - and a painfully cold consideration of just how humanity deals with the deprivations of life.   The cruelty of Man and Woman is so motive-less and strange that it defies analysis - so, the mysterious pair suggest, did Baby ever really exist?  (We heard, but never saw, him or her.)  Boy and Girl at first resist, but then begin to toy, with these new ways of making sense of the world.  But are they simply engaging in mind games, attempting to find solace in a new form of brutal illusion? Or does the only true path to emotional awakening lead through this kind of pain?

These are the kinds of questions that have always floated through Albee's cruelly stylish canon, and they've rarely been voiced quite as crisply as they are here (clearly the playwright is one of his own best critics).  And Exquisite Corps does put over the chilly, darkly funny essence of the play, although the best performances by far come from the smart, sexy (and mighty buff) Zachary Eisenstadt, and especially the lovely, touchingly tentative Lynn R. Guerra, as the existentially star-crossed Boy and Girl.  Meanwhile, as their tormentors, Man and Woman, the accomplished Bob Mussett and and Janelle Mills are certainly diverting, and nail many of their laughs; but they lack that vulpine sense of cloaked malice that makes an Albee villain truly unforgettable - and neither conjures either the poisoned glamour or the incipient sense of unstable identity that I think the playwright is after (this may partly be due to a few subtle errors in tone by the director, Adrienne Boris).  Thus Mussett and Mills come off less as forces of fate than as, well, pretty good actors doing a pretty good job with some weird material. Even with a slightly subdued Man and Woman, however, there's a kind of fierce pleasure to be found here - both in Albee's patented harshness, and, thanks to Eisenstadt and Guerra, in the final, grudging pathos he ultimately conjures for his lost innocents.

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