Raven Theatre Company

Everything in the Garden isn’t your typical Albee play. OK, there’s no such thing as a typical Albee play, but Everything in the Garden is uncharacteristically light stuff from one of America’s all-time heavyweight playwrights. So, if you’re an Albee fan, be forewarned. This satire of consumptive greed in the suburbs isn’t as forceful or unpredictable as you might expect. It’s funny in an irreverent way, and it has a slight undertow of repressed hostility, but it comes nowhere near the black comedy of The Zoo Story.

Actually, Albee adapted the play from an original by English playwright Giles Cooper. Some characters were changed, and the dialogue and locale became distinctly American. Yet the play retains the form and feel of an English drawing-room satire. It’s also interesting that Albee adapted Everything in the Garden for a Broadway production, 20 years ago, starring Barbara Bel Geddes and Barry Nelson. But now, according to the Dramatists Play Service catalog, “Following instructions from the author of this play, it may be leased only for amateur performances at which the audience is unsegregated.” That’s odd, and it’s not a little ironic that Albee should make this stipulation about a play concerning a woman who turns to prostitution to supplement her family’s already adequate income. Was Albee feeling guilty that he’d sold out to rewrite a Broadway star vehicle?

The main characters are Richard and Jenny. They’re white, and they live in a $240,000 suburban home, but they can’t always afford amenities like Dunhills, Stoly, a power mower, and a greenhouse. Richard refuses to let Jenny take a job, although she wants to help out. She argues that money is the issue in all their quarrels. It’s a sound argument, since they don’t seem to think about anything else. Enter, mysteriously, Mrs. Toothe, a crusty, upper-class English madam. She solicits Jenny to service afternoon clients while Richard’s away at work. Jenny agrees. Six months later the cash has piled up, and (how British can you get?) Richard discovers a huge stash in the window seat. Jenny soon confesses and Richard is outraged. But before they can fight it all out, little Roger suddenly returns from boarding school, and the guests for their party that evening are due to arrive. Appearances have to be kept up, and it’s clear that Richard, for all his moralizing, has already been compromised.

By intermission, it’s relatively obvious that Richard will cave in to Jenny’s pragmatism. After all, he’s as money hungry as she is. Act two plays out the obvious consequences, with a couple unsensational twists thrown in. And the whole of act two only reiterates the theme that greed causes people to prostitute themselves, that easy money creates more greed, and that the whole thing is a vicious cycle. And, of course–a touch of the essential Edward Albee here–even the most ordinary people can become extraordinarily vicious.

Well, big deal. None of this is very shocking. We generally take it for granted these days that people can justify anything in the pursuit of a buck. When we find out that all of Jenny’s women friends are turning tricks as well, the implication that greed is epidemic is no great surprise. Even the knowing complicity of the husbands–that too is logical. This may have shocked audiences 20 years ago, but now? Pass the popcorn.

More striking, more provocative are the anachronisms in this production. The Raven Theatre Company sets the play in a present-day suburb of Chicago. This doesn’t wash for a number of reasons. Richard acts as if a working wife were a threat to his status. These days, upper-middle-class status is hard to come by without a two-income family. Prostitution, too, is problematic. Richard’s joke that perhaps Jenny shouldn’t contribute blood this year because she might have picked up some strange diseases strikes a whole new chord of humor. And strange is the party talk about excluding Jews from the country club. Especially is this so when, thanks to nontraditional casting, one of the couples at the party (club members themselves) is black.

It’s easy to see, in Everything in the Garden, Albee squirming, trying to sink some depth into his adaptation of this shallow puddle of a satire. But the puddle would not deepen. It was destined to be a Broadway puddle for stars to splash in, accompanied by the ring of the cash register. And because he could not make the puddle deeper, Albee muddied the waters with occasional spurts of originality. No one could see, on the surface, how shallow the puddle was, but they need only to step into it to know. And once they knew, Albee would look embarrassingly like Neil Simon when he trivialized Chekhov for Broadway in The Good Doctor. So let it be decreed that Everything in the Garden be available only to amateur–i.e. non-Equity–theaters. Not only will the royalties seem humble, but any amateurishness of the play might easily be blamed on the production.

I can’t blame Raven Theatre, although its production is largely, as prescribed, amateur. This is certainly apparent in Michael Menendian’s direction, which is desperately rushed and often without rhythm. The opening dialogue between Jenny and Richard sets the pace with overemphasis, cue jumping, and machine-gun delivery. This undermines the chemistry between Jenny and Richard (played by JoAnn Montemurro and David Puszkiewicz), which isn’t too hot to begin with. Still, individually, both actors are competent. And there’s nothing amateur whatsoever about Lucina Paquet’s performance as the madam, Mrs. Toothe. Paquet is droll, very droll, and she plays her part like it was tailored for her. Paquet’s scenes alone have a life of their own. Also quite exceptional are Karl T. Wright and Johari Johnson, who play the black couple. Actually, I would have liked to see them in the lead roles.

Raven Theatre doesn’t resolve Albee’s moral or artistic dilemmas, but it doesn’t aggravate them either. Raven simply passes the problems along. And so the impact of this play is muddled and light. You can watch the play, have an average good time, and not really confront anything in terms of disturbing or exhilarating insights. What black comedy there is in Everything in the Garden is easily dispelled by street light. Two hours later you’re hungry for another moral/ethical challenge. The only image sustained in my memory is of Richard, angrily denouncing his wife as a whore yet trapped himself by that litter of lime-green stage money. If I’d been led to care a little bit more about Richard, I might also sympathize with Albee’s position. But I can’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.