Albee Damned

Even the title of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby is grossly misleading; it should be The Play About Nothing. If ever there was desperation – a large, thudding slab of desperation – on a stage, this is it. An older couple, not married, called Man and Woman, come to where Boy and Girl live, make love, and have a baby. Eventually the elders walk off with it, after convincing Boy and Girl that there never was a baby. Actually, what there never was is a play.

What goes on for nearly two hours is the woolliest, phoniest, most pretentious woolgathering this side of the world’s biggest sheep-shearing festival. Albee simply throws anything and everything into the pot, pell-mell, with the most brazen and relentless repetitions, as if a silly remark, clotted paragraph, or outlandish jest – even an entire scene – repeated twice, thrice, or more thereby became compelling. Disconnected, pointless, smart-ass anecdotes; semantic discussions; and song-and-dance fragments are stirred together in wantonly clashing fashion. Puny, unrewarding variations are played on irrelevant statements. The players address the audience in ceaseless windy monologues; even the disjointed dialogue sounds like monologuizing. Much of it is crude and tasteless, unconvincingly heterosexual or suggestively homosexual, often gloatingly self-contradictory and, ultimately, nonsensical while pretending to be deeply meaningful. This so-called play isn’t merely awful; it’s offal.

Albee has written three good plays and a couple of tolerable ones; the rest are worthless. When I was associate editor of the Mid-Century Book Society, I proposed Albee’s first volume of plays for a selection. From Berlin, W. H. Auden, one of the editors, wrote me: “I am afraid I must say No to The sic Zoo Story. I can well believe that on the stage it is effective, but read cold on the printed page it seems too irrational.” Well, Albee has come a long way since: He can now write plays that would seem too irrational scribbled on an outhouse wall, too inept for the puppet stage. It is a shame to see two fine actors (Marian Seldes and Brian Murray) and a passable one (Kathleen Early) make fools of themselves; David Burtka is too untalented even to be counted. I thought that after The Man Who Had Three Arms, Albee could sink no lower. I was wrong.

Not much better is the ghastly musical Time and Again. Based on a cult novel by Jack Finney (which, on present evidence, must be trash), this is the worst of far too many time-travel pieces. Not only wholly unimaginative (you close your eyes and land, pronto, in another century), it is also totally derivative, acting as if the vastly superior On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Brigadoon did not exist. The time-tripping of this continually tripping-up show merely succeeds in transporting the American musical back a century or so.

Jack Viertel, former drama critic and now creative director (Jujamcyn Theatres) and artistic director (Encores!), should have known better in any of these capacities than touch this dead-tired material, let alone adapt it himself into a lackluster, witless musical book. The music and lyrics by Walter Edgar Kennon, formerly known as Skip Kennon (author of the creepy Herringbone), are eminently skippable. Well-nigh tuneless and verbally flatfooted, the score hasn’t one decent song; the only half-decent one, the title song, is reprised so many deadening times that even Albee would have reached for the blue pencil.

Susan H. Schulman’s routine direction, Rob Ashford’s rudimentary choreography, and a generally skimpy, probably underfinanced production do not help. The female lead, Laura Benanti, is pretty and can sing but lacks warmth; the male lead, Lewis Cleale, has a built-in dopiness unsuited to romantic parts. Julia Murney sings well but looks odd; David McCallum gets nothing worthwhile to do; and Lauren Ward is an all-round dud. Manhattan Theatre Club should not have resuscitated this 1993 opus, which at best belongs on Broadway with Jane Eyre and Seussical.

The Englishman Quentin Crisp was something between a wit and a weirdo. He plied many trades, from actor to civil servant and worse, but mainly, he tells us, after pinch-hitting for a friend as a male model, took up posing as a career. He certainly became an expert poseur, and duly came to America in black cape, broad-brimmed black fedora, and grotesquely curled blue-white hair, to become a monologuist onstage and dedicated partygoer off.

Now we have an English actor-director who calls himself Bette Bourne, founder-director-star of “the celebrated queer comedy ensemble Bloolips,” impersonating Crisp in Resident Alien, a monodrama written by Tim Fountain and staged by Mike Bradwell. Possibly because the best of Crisp is no longer crisp, we get here a blend of bottom-drawer epigrams and woozy maundering, indifferently performed by the flabby and floppy Bourne. In “Jodelling Song,” one of the poems in Façade, Edith Sitwell wrote, “Man must say farewells / To storks and Bettes.” I don’t know about storks . . .

Jerzy Kosinski, a Polish-Jewish immigrant, wrote a number of novels of which only the first, The Painted Bird, was really good. So different is it stylistically from the rest that it was rumored to be the stolen work of another. In any case, Jerzy had to hire a grad student to polish his English, but what the chap had to do was English his Polish. Other controversies sprung up. His third novel, Being There, was shown by his biographer, James Park Sloan, to be sufficiently close to a thirties Polish novel to warrant a plagiarism suit were the author still alive. But Kosinski went on charming society, seducing women, and frequenting louche establishments; the ruckus caused when the supposedly autobiographical Painted Bird was revealed to be all lies scarcely fazed him. One fine day, though, he committed suicide.

Davey Holmes’s play More Lies About Jerzy recounts the main brouhahas without much fresh insight or dramatic interest. Jared Harris is miscast as Jerzy, having neither his insidious, social-climbing charm nor his dark, perverse intensity. The others do what they can under Darko Tresnjak’s humdrum direction. Best are Boris McGiver, Lizbeth Mackay, and Gretchen Egolf, delightful both clothed and in her nude scene, deemed gratuitous by the Times. Less so, I should think, than the play.

The Play About the Baby
Writer, director, Edward Albee; starring Brian Murray and Marian Seldes. At the Century Center.
Time and Again
Score, Walter Edgar Kennon; book, Jack Viertel; director, Susan H. Schulman; starring Laura Benanti and Lewis Cleale. At Manhattan Theatre Club.
Resident Alien
By Tim Fountain; director, Mike Bradwell; starring Bette Bourne. At the New York Theater Workshop.
More Lies About Jerzy
By Davey Holmes; director, Darko Tresnjak; starring Jared Harris. At the Vineyard Theater.

Albee Damned