Albee Festival One-Acts

Goodman Theatre

In 1948, at age 20, Edward Albee moved to Greenwich Village and spent a decade soaking up the latest strains of bohemianism–while living on his grandmother’s trust fund. So it should come as no surprise that when he sat down to write his first plays, at the end of the 50s, they demonstrated a tension between the security of the conventional–realism–and the risk of experimentation, represented by absurdism. For four decades this conflict was a hallmark of the playwright’s work, a conflict he was unable to reconcile. Or, perhaps more accurately, he was unable to master either style. As a result, his scripts can feel inconsequential.

One need only look at Albee’s first two plays–conveniently paired on the first program of Albee one-acts at the Goodman–to see how torn he was when he first set pen to paper. The Zoo Story, an intriguing slice of absurdism, is his most accomplished play, while The Death of Bessie Smith, an unwieldy slab of realism, is one of his worst. From the get-go, it was clear that Albee’s absurdist tendencies could elevate his plays to giddy heights, only to have his hankering for realism bring them crashing back down to earth. Even the 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–his most commercially successful attempt at realism–rarely rises above the pedestrian, illuminating little beyond its characters’ insular, overwritten neuroses.

In The Death of Bessie Smith, by contrast, Albee takes on race relations. An all-white medical establishment in Memphis in 1937 leaves the eponymous blues legend to die after a car crash. In a series of clunky, poorly structured scenes, Albee generously informs us that racism is really bad for black folks. It even turns one lonely admissions nurse into a cranky, self-loathing cuss. Chuck Smith’s production, with its haphazard staging, broad and unconvincing performances, and onslaught of bad southern accents, does the play no favors.

But director Lynn Ann Bernatowicz, tackling that hour-long chestnut The Zoo Story, ably demonstrates just how close to greatness Albee once came. This two-character play is set on a bench in Central Park, where volatile, socially inept Jerry accosts middle-aged, middle-class, nondescript Peter. For the most part Jerry talks and Peter listens, but what begins as the scattered chitchat of a mildly deranged transient evolves into a powerfully disturbing monologue from a man plummeting into an abyss. Now that God has turned His back on the world, Jerry explains, he can no longer relate to other human beings and is left with only objects: a bed, a cockroach, a carpet, a roll of toilet paper. His most meaningful relationship is with his landlady’s vicious dog, which he recently tried to poison. The dog didn’t die but emerged from its long sickness with a perfect indifference to Jerry. “I’m afraid I must tell you I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to,” Jerry says, then concludes tellingly, “We have to know the effect of our actions.” The quintessential absurd antihero, he’s trapped in a meaningless universe where crises are never resolved but simply dwindle into boredom.

Staging what is essentially an extended and complex monologue, Bernatowicz understands the importance of simplicity. She provides no directorial flourishes, no conceptual filters, but simply coaxes Bradley Armacost as Peter and Steve Key as Jerry to respond honestly and immediately to each other. The effect is rarely less than engrossing, though Armacost never offers a convincing dramatic reason for his character to sit listening to a near lunatic: Peter is neither nebbishy enough to be cowed nor needy enough to desire Jerry’s bizarre company. But Armacost does listen with the kind of active engagement that throws everything Jerry says into high relief. Key delivers a thoroughly satisfying performance, making Jerry pathetic and menacing, ridiculous and heroic, mad and lucid at almost every moment.

Unfortunately Albee flees from the full implications of an absurdist worldview in the explosive finale. Once Jerry pulls a knife, the play–like its protagonist–self-destructs. As Brian Way writes in “Albee and the Absurd,” “It is postulated, quite as firmly as in any Ibsen social drama, that a catastrophe is also a resolution…and that events, however obscure, ultimately have a definite and unambiguous meaning.” Albee ends up using the dramatic techniques of absurdism without embracing its underlying uncertainty. As a result this provocative play stops short of profundity.

Critic Martin Esslin identifies two levels of theater of the absurd, the deeper of them characterized by a full acceptance of the absurdist worldview. The more superficial and accessible level, he writes, consists of “its social criticism, its pillorying of an inauthentic, petty society.” And as the Goodman’s second program of one-acts fully demonstrates, Albee rarely ventures beyond this level.

These days we don’t think of Albee and Samuel Beckett as equals, but when The Zoo Story first appeared on an American stage it was paired with Krapp’s Last Tape–one of the high-water marks of absurdism. Beckett’s influence on Albee is everywhere present in Albee’s third play, The Sandbox, but Albee’s unwillingness to plumb the deeper level of absurdism turns the piece into Beckett lite.

The glib social criticism of The Sandbox is no more nourishing than a bottle of soda pop. A vacuous middle-aged couple, Mommy and Daddy, dump Mommy’s 86-year-old mother on “the beach”–actually an oversize sandbox. While a musician plays quietly in one corner and a mysterious muscleman does calisthenics in the other, we see that this family–as in any easy caricature of 1960s middle-class America–is sterile, unfeeling, and estranged. Albee steals so blatantly from Beckett’s Endgame (the aging parent cast into the garbage) and Happy Days (Grandma ends up buried to her waist) that one wonders if he was spoofing the master.

At least The Sandbox has a certain breezy charm. The 1968 Box is the worst sort of Beckett imitation. While we look at a shrouded figure in a large, dimly lit cube, we hear in voice-over a ten-minute fractured monologue full of images of decay, loneliness, corruption, and seagulls. It’s all terribly portentous and silly: this imitation isn’t flattery–it’s flattening.

Finding the Sun, from 1983, has nothing to do with Beckett, absurdism, any of the other plays on the bill, or much of anything beyond its echoes of the insular Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Four couples–two younger married couples, an older married couple, and a mother and son–lingering on the beach one afternoon pair up in every possible arrangement to explain how frustrated and isolated they feel. With little structure and lots of talk, the piece dawdles aimlessly through conveniently manufactured crises. If it weren’t for a handful of exquisite monologues, which descend like rain on a desert, the play would blow away as easily as sand.

Saddled with these insubstantial works, director Eric Rosen manages to give them precision, beauty, and the necessary swiftness. Like Bernatowicz, he makes simple, clear choices and molds his actors into cohesive casts who handle Albee’s texts with grace and maturity. In fact the slight feel of the entire program is a testament to Rosen’s skill–he exposes exactly what the playwright put on the page.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Hilary Randle, Jennifer Dobby.