The Substance of Ire

Waiting Game: John Carter and Michael Learned in Edward Albee's All Over.Photo: Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Edward Albee’s All Over consists of family and friends waiting in a bed-sitting room for a famous man, lying behind a screen, to progress from dying to death. The sole action is talk, going either backward into reminiscence or sideways into digression. Since none of the generically labeled characters (the Wife, the Mistress, the Best Friend, etc.) earns our involvement, their badinage – the Doctor’s recall of his days as a prison physician, the Mistress’s recollections of her dad’s and grandpa’s senility or of her teenage boyfriend’s penis, the Wife’s memories of a home and garden in Paris, etc., etc. – has little emotional resonance.

The digressions register even less. The characters don’t so much speak as speechify, in arias out of second-rate literature. If they do speak, it is largely to be bitchy, superior, bloody-minded (detailed accounts of a car crash and Chinese torture), or occasionally obscene. By way of pseudo-action, we get doors slammed, faces slapped, barely motivated hysterics, communal laughing fits, and gratuitous crying jags – e.g., the Son’s tearful ode to his father’s bathroom.

There is the usual Albee semantic one-upmanship (you can’t be dead because being predicates life), pseudo-poeticizing (one putatively lyrical phrase is repeated eight times), and arrogance down to the stage directions, which prescribe the tiniest stage movements, word emphases, and costume details. Is this a play or a ritual? It makes Emily Mann’s staging and much of the acting hard to assess, although Rosemary Harris and Michael Learned are always watchable. I blame the Roundabout for exhuming a play that in 1971–72 flopped in both New York and London. Must we have All Over all over again?

If Kaufman and Hart had undertaken a comedy about the publishing business, they might have written Endpapers by Thomas McCormack. I say “might” because McCormack also has an underlying seriousness with which K&H would not have bothered. McCormack, now 70, began as a playwright but was deflected into publishing, to become editor, chairman, and CEO at St. Martin’s Press, where he spent a quarter-century before quitting to write plays. If all turn out as good as Endpapers, we can only wish McCormack long life and hold our breath.

Endpapers is a breathlessly fast, funny, and thoughtful comedy by a man who knows his subject as thoroughly as his craft. The publishing types include the crusty old owner, now dying; his spunky daughter and reluctant successor; an unscrupulous, unintellectual, but shrewd editor; and another editor, a former philosophy prof, dedicated but a tad unworldly. Also sundry others orbiting around them, including two fancy, hilariously caricatured authors. But the publishing folk are for real, and their contest for the control of a classy, privately owned, but sinking publishing house is acutely observed and engrossingly portrayed.

The play is as good at characterization as at repartee; keeps you amused, guessing, and often surprised; and emerges almost profound in its empathy for the paradoxes of human nature. Covering similar ground as Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire, Endpapers is somewhat inferior to Baitz’s first act, and rather better than his second. In no sense, however, does it duplicate Baitz or, in its total impact, fall short of him. It is directed with savvy and savor by Pamela Berlin, cannily designed by Neil Patel, and enacted by a cast headed by Bruce McCarty and Tim Hopper, all eleven of whom contribute importantly and indelibly.

Considering the liberties Friedrich Schiller took with history in his Maria Stuart (1800), it was perhaps all right for Ingmar Bergman, the director, to make free with Schiller. The playwright wrote Goethe about his problems – having to “weather the poetic struggle with the historical material, and expend effort to secure for the imagination freedom from history.” So his Mary Stuart became a radiant 25-year-old who had not wasted away in twenty years’ captivity, and Elizabeth an attractive thirtysomething, not especially virginal.

Taking his cue from this, Bergman had the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden eroticize the proceedings. Thus his Elizabeth gropes Mortimer’s crotch and mounts Leicester with unlaced bodice. Thus Mary romps barelegged in the park, and, on the way to the block, leaps on Leicester, her legs around his waist, to implant a farewell kiss. Even Elizabeth may be barefoot in the throne room, and whichever lady has a scene, her rival lurks hauntingly somewhere onstage.

There are other liberties. Mortimer does not stab himself, but lets his enemies do the dirty work. And, of course, the long play gets judicious pruning. It would be nice, though, if when a blue sky is being talked about, the designers didn’t give us a vermilion one. No matter: When you have two such leading ladies as the prodigally feminine Pernilla August as Mary and the chiseledly chryselephantine Lena Endre as Elizabeth, you already have it made. Now add Börje Ahlstedt’s Machiavellian Burleigh, Stefan Larsson’s dashingly headlong Mortimer, and the noble Gunnel Lindblom’s devoted nurse, and forthwith a few footling weaknesses are forgiven.

Göran Wassberg’s majestic set, Charles Koroly’s neatly stylized costumes, and Daniel Börtz’s sparing but well-judged music complement Bergman’s alternatingly austere and impassioned staging. What splendid directorial touches: Mary breaking the chain of her crucifix as she ardently tears it from her soon-to-be-severed neck; Elizabeth, in the end, coquettishly loosening her hair as she vainly awaits the fleeing Leicester. Michael Feingold provided fluent simultaneous translation, though he might have avoided two grammatical errors in one line: “On matters like this, others cannot give advice nor consolation.”

All Over
Revival of the Edward Albee play, staged by Emily Mann and starring Rosemary Harris and Michael Learned.
New play by Thomas McCormack, directed by Pamela Berlin.
Maria Stuart
The play by Schiller, staged by Ingmar Bergman. (Closed.)

The Substance of Ire