Sand: Three Plays on a Beach

at the Theatre Building

Edward Albee’s arrest for indecent exposure on a Florida beach a few years back was somehow appropriate. The playwright’s made a career out of indecently exposing impotent intellectual men, booze-glugging, oversexed women, and their small-minded upper-class values–all the while exposing himself as an artist just as self-involved and callous as the characters he’s spent most of his adult life skewering.

Do we really have to sit through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Marriage Play, Counting the Ways, and Finding the Sun to understand how rich married couples behave after the love and erections are gone? How many spunky grandmas do we have to see shunted aside by uncaring children? Are young women in Albee’s estimation ever anything more than dips or dipsomaniacs? Sometimes you wish he’d try something new. Or at least find another beach. His art has become the theatrical equivalent of the old Lenny Bruce quip about the woman in the sheer dress: you can see through it, but would you want to?

“Sand,” an evening of three one-acts from various points in Albee’s career, was developed by the playwright himself for the Signature Theatre Company, but there’s little here that Albee hasn’t revealed before. A Chicago premiere presented by Robert M. Stoeck, James M. Schneider, and their newly formed Sun Partners, “Sand” begins inauspiciously enough with Albee’s intentionally cryptic Box, in which a hooded figure in a sandbox tries vainly to catch a few fleeting glances of birds and sunlight overhead while a disembodied female voice delivers a monologue over a loudspeaker.

“Art hurts,” the voice declares, going on to explain that the beauty of art lies in its ability to create order and that our pain lies in our inability to imitate that order in our chaotic and miserable lives. Art supplies a tangible reminder of our failings and a futile “memory of what we have not known”–a philosophy underscored by the presence of the inscrutable, seemingly desperate woman confined to a box so perfectly ordered that it reminds her of her own disorders and insufficiencies. However, in this production art doesn’t hurt as much as irritate. The images, which owe a great deal to Beckett, are captivating, but the sound in the Theatre Building is badly muddled, adding an unintended layer of confusion to the pretentious obscurity on display.

The revival of Albee’s The Sandbox that comes next provides little new insight into this dated satire. The cast throw themselves into their Albee stereotypes with gusto, but these suburban mummy-and-daddy Greenwich, Connecticut, types are so removed from any post-1962 reality that the satire is not only boring but needless. The viciously snotty Mommy, the henpecked Daddy, and the vibrant Grandma, who’s shoved into a sandbox to die while a hunky angel of death flaps his arms over her (“What a way to treat an 86-year-old woman!”), may be cross-referenced with the loveless couples, unwanted grannies, and blond-haired, blue-eyed young Leni Riefenstahl men in Albee’s similarly overrevived The American Dream. And ever since folks like Monty Python raised the stakes on this sort of comedy (“Are you suggesting that we eat my mother?”), Albee’s upper-crust snideness has seemed tame.

The one point of interest in “Sand,” at least for Albee-philes, is the Chicago premiere of Finding the Sun, a bleak hour-long comedy about four pairs of men and women on a beach in which Albee tackles all his favorite targets: the trials of passionless marriages, the pain of repressed homosexuality, the idealization of young male beauties, the unhealthy sexual attraction between mothers and sons, and the cold indifference with which the rich regard other people’s deaths.

Albee has always been better at fleshing out arguments than people, which may explain why he tends to identify his characters by their familial roles (as in The Sandbox) or their initials. Here he just names them alphabetically. Abigail and Benjamin are the young, doomed couple–a sad, dippy hetero woman and a needy, dippy gay man who married for convenience and reputation instead of love. Cordelia and Daniel are the young Bickersons, a training-wheels version of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Catty Cordelia is the archetypal Albee female: cigarette in one hand, martini in the other, she married Daniel even though she knew he’d been Benjamin’s lover. Edmee and Fergus are the Oedipal combo of stuck-up, overbearing mother and wide-eyed son. Probably the best realized and least familiar of these pairs are the elderly Gertrude and Henden, who take divergent attitudes toward aging. Henden fears death but tries to remain logical and distant from it. (“Being alive is so splendid. Oh well.”) Gertrude, resigned to her fate, remains in the sun despite a previous bout with skin cancer.

As always in Albee plays, there are jarring and effective moments. Miserably doofy Abigail’s frighteningly nihilistic monologue about her hatred of the sun (“Why don’t you just go down?…Bring the ice down on all of us”) is especially well performed here by Cathy Bethurem. And the mischievous Jim Slonina gets some easy laughs as the predictably innocent 16-year-old son of the wickedly lusty Edmee, played with verve by Lila Michael. But structure, usually one of Albee’s strong points, is sorely lacking here. Under James M. Schneider’s generally fluid direction, focus moves uncomfortably among the couples on the stage, forcing those who aren’t speaking to mime conversations or activities until it’s their turn to speak. Too much of the play is taken up by dull, expository monologues that tell us things we already know, could easily have figured out for ourselves, or simply don’t care about. When Melissa Carlson as Cordelia steps forward into the light and throatily intones, “I imagine you’ve been wondering why I married Daniel,” the temptation is to yell back, “No, not in the slightest.” If the characters don’t provide such unwanted information in monologues, they give it to the conveniently curious Fergus, who’s good at asking questions that reveal character.

Though his 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, Three Tall Women, provides evidence to the contrary, Finding the Sun, when viewed alongside the other plays in “Sand,” proves it’s possible for a playwright to survive for decades by rehashing the same old characters, themes, and arguments. Like a serial exhibitionist, Albee might think he’s shocking us, but he’s really just become predictable and dull.