The two plays in this Edward Albee double bill, the first a little over an hour, the second slightly over ten minutes, are the bridge that leads us from his first existential two-hander, The Zoo Story, to his unruly domestic epic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The 80-year-old playwright has directed these early plays himself, in the third major production of his work this year (the fourth will be his biographical treatment of the sculptor Louise Nevelson, Occupant, which played in previews a few years ago with Anne Bancroft, and which will now star Mercedes Ruhl). The American Dream and The Sandbox are apprentice works, but Albee’s apprentice works are as strong as anybody else’s masterpieces. Going to an Albee play is guaranteed to shake you up, or at least raise your hackles; when the play is finished, you’ve been touched to what Virginia Woolf’s Martha would call “the marrow”, and if you aren’t upset, and ready to change your life, then you’ve probably reached a stage of complete insensibility.
The first work, The American Dream, is written in the style of Ionesco; absurdism isn’t quite Albee’s bag, but he does a passable imitation in order to get what he really wants on stage for the first time: a dysfunctional American family. Mommy (Judith Ivey) and Daddy (George Bartenieff) are deadly funhouse versions of Albee’s own hated adoptive parents. Albee has called Mommy “a tumescent monster,” and Ivey has a field day with her fake smiles, her nauseating baby talk and her barely hidden desires of the flesh, which have a sexual basis but don’t always need to be expressed sexually. Bartenieff also nails Daddy (“an acquiescent blob,” according to the playwright), sitting in his easy chair and hearing just enough so that Mommy doesn’t get mad at him for not listening to her prattle about hats and women’s club duties. Clubwoman-at-large Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler) enters this domestic purgatory, not really knowing why she was summoned. In the play’s most famous moment, Mommy tells her to get comfortable, and asks if she’d like to take off her dress. Mrs. Barker smiles and says yes, stripping to her slip. While this absurdist turn might not be as shocking as it was when the play first premiered, it still retains a creepy frisson, due mostly to Butler’s uncanny, low-voiced and somewhat Alice Ghostley-like comic stylings.
Myra Carter, an Albee veteran, was originally supposed to play Grandma, based on Albee’s own shrewd granny, but she had to bow out because of an injury. Lois Markle does what she can with the role, but she’s all wrong for the part, too young and sensible, so that her big speech about Mommy and Daddy’s mutilated and abandoned adoptive son doesn’t come off. She does no better in The Sandbox, a small, gentle play where Grandma is enfolded by an angel of death, played by Jesse Williams. Both Williams and Harmon Walsh are asked to be beautiful young men who stand by while their beauty is described, by themselves and others, as empty materialist goods; in other words, these are impossible roles. Walsh’s speech about longing for his twin brother is just about as romantic as Albee has ever been on stage (the romanticism marks this definitively as an early work, more than anything else).
The two plays alternate between scathing satire and desperate feeling in a way that never comes together into a whole experience, but, like all Albee works, they leave a deep and particular wound.