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A PERFECT LITTLE GEM FROM ALBEE’S HAUNTED YOUTH

 

picture - The American DreamTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published April 4, 2008

 

The American Dream

and The Sandbox

now playing Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre

 

Edward Albee’s crisp, fresh, and (surprise!) quaintly charming revivals of two of his earliest works – The American Dream and The Sandbox – at the Cherry Lane Theatre (which has practically been Albee’s second home for over forty years) – are thrillingly on target and not always in ways you might have expected. The American Dream may be the longer and seemingly more complex and certainly more fondly remembered of the two one-acts, but it is The Sandbox, clocking in at less than fifteen minutes, that emerges as a little masterpiece.

 

The absurdist underpinnings of Dream no longer seem as radical as they did in 1960 but the play offers something it couldn’t have possibly even suggested in its original incarnation: the intimations of all the themes that would preoccupy Albee and gain in depth and power and strength of language throughout his stunning journey as one of our theater’s most unique voices. Surely, despite a few longeurs, the play remains as funny a rumination on what horrors lie behind the surface manners of the American family as it ever was. And, with a single exception, this may well be, under Albee’s casually lucid direction, the best production the play has ever received. Judith Ivey is the perfect Mommy with her pasted-on smile, her icy gaze, her elegant posture, her brittle delivery, and the sense she exudes of a woman who knows everyone and everything and remembers only what she wants to remember, who could walk away from the havoc she creates without ever looking back and seeing what it is she’s done.  How could a monster live inside a woman who seems to be concerned primarily with whether a hat is beige or the color of wheat? Once you have seen Ms. Ivey, you will have met such a monster. And when she seduces the young man who represents the play’s title, someone who looks familiar to her because he is blood brother to the child she has already destroyed, we see very clearly that sexuality walks hand in hand, sometimes, with evil, and that, naturally, they both come with an altogether polite and fixed smile. The nastiness that always was at the center of the play’s surface good manners is embodied in Ms. Ivey’s Mommy.

 

George Bartenieff’s Daddy is less flashy but equally accurate; every nervous tic is camouflaged but always palpable. This Daddy wants to die, but has found a way to live in his own head, despite the presence of a Mommy who demands strict attention, and how he achieves this precarious balance is a delight to watch. The opening dialogue, as played by Ivey and Bartenieff,  is comedy in its most distilled form. One of the saddest things about having seen other productions of a particular play is that certain performances become so emblematic that nothing can erase their memory, and Sudie Bond’s Grandma was such a performance, and Grandma, this play’s voice of reason, has not found, in Lois Markle, an actress to either equal or replace the late Ms. Bond. Ms. Markle seems too young and not quite eccentric enough. On the other hand, Kathleen Butler, as a visitor with a secret, and Harmon Walsh, as the American dream in the flesh, complete the cast with skill and just the precise amount of nuttiness. And Neil Pate’s red, white, and blue set design is unalloyed wit, evidence that a modest budget never deters the imagination.

 

In short, everything has been done to make this is as satisfying  a version of the play as could be conceived and, if it evokes nostalgia for the past and a certain rue for the passing of time (and what time sometimes does to undermine the virtues, as in this case, of absurdism as a literary style), there is still enough here to more than justify its existence as part of the Albee canon.

 

picture - The SandboxThe Sandbox, however, is the evening’s genuine revelation. This slyly demented threnody on Grandma’s dying moments is as exquisite a miniature gem as could be created in 1959, when it was written, or, for that matter, today. Even as Albee finds fun with form, his view of the unceremonious way we allow our elders to die is deadly serious. Absurdism isn’t dated here; it is the bright and harsh little light that shines through the darkness of its ugly and oddly poignant truths. Here are Mommy and Daddy again, waiting for Grandma to die.  Grandma, playing with a toy shovel, having been reduced to an imposed infancy, is not quite ready to go on terms that are not her own. Her death is accompanied by a cello solo, brilliantly scored by William Flanagan, and overseen by a young man performing ritual calisthenics which suggest the beating and fluttering of wings since he is, as Albee matter-of-factly points out, the Angel of Death. Jesse Williams, who plays the part, gets a great deal of comic mileage out of a simple “Hi!” That combination of innocence and savvy, which makes him kin to the young American dream, is wonderfully etched by Williams in a few swift strokes. Ms. Markle’s  Grandma is more effective and affecting in this play.

 

We are celebrating Mr. Albee this season in myriad ways, because he is, as we are constantly being reminded, 80 years old. But Albee proves to be forever young, and, in these two plays, he seems to be celebrating himself. It is very nice being around for his party.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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