Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque lasted only 12 performances on Broadway when it premiered in 1980, and it marked the point when the playwright fell out of critical favor for a decade or so. It has been thought of as a problem play in his collected works, a play that suffered because it was somehow unfinished or neglected due to Albee’s heavy drinking in that period. I had not read it before seeing this new revival at the Signature Theatre, and Albee has said that he has made only minor alterations. It is unremittingly, unremorsefully savage from beginning to end on themes like death, friendship and identity. In the first act, in particular, where three middle-aged couples are miserably drinking, there is a forensic sort of meanness in their talk, without any of the stylization and humor of the barbed dialogue in other Albee plays. The effect is a little like getting punched in the face over and over again, and then getting punched in the stomach a few times until you’re on the ground. The buried subtext in this first act, I think, is that certain people don’t abandon friends from college as they should, but instead keep seeing them out of inertia or self-loathing.
At the end of this blistering first act, after the dying Jo (Laila Robins) has let out some very upsetting screams of pain while being led upstairs by her husband Sam (Michael Hayden), the mysterious Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) arrives, claiming to be Jo’s mother; it feels entirely apt for an Albee play that a false mother might also be seen as a kind of Death. Throughout the second act, Albee lays out a sort of metaphysical cynicism that is entirely convincing because his full talent and full anger is behind it. This is a viciously angry play, much harsher-flavored than just about anything else in the Albee canon, and thoroughly depressing.
Albee always seems to insist that pouring salt in a wound will somehow make it better in the end, but I myself side with Eugene O’Neill on the necessity of pipe dreams and Tennessee Williams on the ameliorating pleasures of the kindness of strangers. The outsider in this play, the self-aware, self-described “brunette bimbo” Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), is the only one who shows any decency or kindness, and she is the best and most original character here, but she cannot compete with the rage of the others. This is a drinking play and a despairing play, a play about cruelty and nullity and a play that wonders, “What’s the use?” That bottoming-out sense of “What’s the use?” is meant to cover up some of the holes in the conception, particularly in the conception of the title character, and it’s easy to reject this play on a theatrical and also a philosophical level. But it is an impressively surly beast, not to be trifled with, not to be ignored, and not to be easily shaken off.