There would seem to be no absolute view of Edward Albee's lesser works. There are some theatre companies who find them worth exploring, some viewers who find them intriguing and others who just absorb them neutrally. While I admire most of his—I guess the word by now is “classics”—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance and a few more—I have to say, the others just make me mad. I think they’re phoned in, I think they’re a product of effete posturing and I think they’re often his railing against things he himself doesn’t have and can’t achieve, not the least of which is mainstream popularity and an affinity for tapping into the zeitgeist of universality. (I’m leaving a lot unsaid, for reasons I’ll get to later.) Which brings us to The Lady from Dubuque, a play that flopped on Broadway in 1970 but seems to be enjoying a far more successful revival—well directed by David Esbjornson and well acted by his cast—in the hands of the Signature Theatre.
Here’s the Wikipedia synopsis. I’ve named the current cast in interpolated bold print. For those who wish to avoid spoilers, skip the italics that follow; skipping the second paragraph is more important than skipping the first, which is mostly set-up for the more serious and existential meat of the play.
The play's first act finds three young couples (Sam + Jo [Michael Hayden & Laila Robins] hosting Fred + Carol and Lucinda + Edgar [C.J. Wilson, Tricia Paoluccio, Catherine Curtin, Thomas Jay Ryan]) engaging in party games like Twenty Questions. Jo's angry bitterness becomes apparent earlier than its source, which is the terminal disease that tortures her and will soon claim her life. At the end of the act, after the mounting tension drives the guests to leave, Sam carries Jo up to bed. Suddenly, a fourth couple appears from the wings: a glamorous older woman, Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and her black companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James). She asks the audience, "Are we in time? Is this the place?" and answers her own questions: "Yes, we are in time. This is the place." The curtain falls.
In the previous act, the recurrent theme of the game was "Who are you?" In Act Two, that question becomes more serious, as Sam, shocked by the appearance of these strangers in his house, repeatedly demands that Elizabeth reveal her identity. She eventually insists that she is Jo's mother, come from Dubuque, Iowa "for her daughter's dying". However, Sam knows Jo's mother as a small, balding woman with pink hair, who lives in New Jersey and is estranged from Jo, and Elizabeth is clearly not she. Unfortunately for Sam, who vigorously protests the veracity of Elizabeth's claims, Jo runs into Elizabeth's arms and never questions her appearance or identity. Whoever she and Oscar may—or may not—be, they clearly represent the coming of Death, something familiar and unknown. At the end of the play, Oscar carries the dying Jo upstairs one last time. As the devastated Sam demands once more to learn Elizabeth's true identity, she ends the play with this line: "Why, I'm the lady from Dubuque. I thought you knew. [to the audience] I thought he knew."
In an interview in the Signature Theatre’s free Season Souvenir Book, Albee gives an in-depth interview that, looked at one way, is a decent print profile of an iconic theatrical personality; but looked at another way, also spells out the latticework of elaborate defenses he has set up for himself as a prophylactic against criticism: that audiences too often settle for middle-brow crap, that when his stuff isn’t understood it’s because people prefer to have pabulum spoon fed rather than think for themselves, that if people insist on interpreting any of his plays a particular way (as opposed to how he might interpret it, which he doesn’t ever reveal), there’s nothing he can do about it, and etc. To which my frank and simple response is my favorite Geoffrey Tennant line from the third season of Slings & Arrows, when he’s debating with Oliver (the literal ghost director) the latter’s vision for a production of King Lear: “I understand it. I just don’t like it.” I don’t like the straight-bashing (there is no such thing as a functional marriage in the Albee-verse, or one built on a foundation that isn’t corrupt), I don’t like the mean-spirited verbal taunting of the invading characters, and I don’t like the invading characters, because they’re moralistic without morals, judgmental without righteousness and an arbitrary device. (Also a recurrent device for him. He brought them back in the even meaner The Play About the Baby, though there he defined neither by ethnicity. And what I wrote about that play serves here as well: “There is a decided heterophobic subtext to the play’s insistence that married youth exists to be destroyed…and that wisdom only lies with aged despoilers. In this more enlightened day and age, the play can hardly be construed as representing the gay community, or even anything other than the author's own michegoss. But there’s no denying the earmarks of a bitter [and decidedly quaint] homosexual manifesto that dare not speak its name.” Or perhaps one that dares you to name it, without fear of castigation. I hasten to add, I attended that play in the company of a homosexual colleague, whose denunciation of it, along those lines, was far harsher than mine.)
I also, though, cannot deny that many find the Albee-verse fascinating…that for the most part, in The Lady from Dubuque, the jokes he intends as jokes land, and that audiences (at least the audience the night I attended) seem riveted. To be honest, even I was riveted, in the sense that any expertly presented work of art that pisses you off that much can’t be dull. And the engagement has been extended. So who am I to encourage denying you the experience of seeing—and judging—for yourself on the strength of my opinion? That’s not a responsibility I want. (It’s also why I hate the term critic, to be honest. It saddles the craft with negativity in the very branding of it; in truth, I think we’re appraisers, and the best of us are also analysts. If Albee wants to insist that “critics” don’t know much, in a literal sense I agree. But the genuine, trained, schooled, literature-familiar appraisers with a gift for deconstructive insight know a lot.) And this, I guess, can only be construed as a personal appraisal, and only barely a review. But it reflects how I feel and what I think honestly, and it’s the best I can do.
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