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Lady From Dubuque
By Elyse Sommer
True to Albee's above stated belief that he can't write "with an eye toward making scenes clearer or more pleasurable," the major update in the script has been the placement of his name in front of the title — an acknowledgement of his triumphant comeback from a personal and professional meltdown during the 1980s and the reason Dubuque is worth seeing within the context of his well-earned status as one of our most original and provocative playwrights who, at 83, remains feisty and productive.
Albee watchers will recognize threads from his better-known and more frequently produced plays: The "get the hostess" game playing in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. . . the enigmatic couples in A Delicate Balance and The Play About the Baby. . . the distant, dying mother in Three Tall Women. To some these recognizable reminders of other Albee works represent the playwright's steadfast pursuit of essential themes; to others they illustrate his tendency to be repetitious and crib from himself.
The hosts in Dubuque are Jo (Laila Robins) and Sam (Michael Hayden). Their sky high living room with its circular staircase and high-priced paintings and sculptures defines them as well to do suburbanites (fairly common in Albee-land). Yet, as becomes evident just minutes into the first scene, all is not well with them. Jo refuses to let Sam to keep things light with his game of 20 Questions. She gives the frivolous get-together with their neighbors its grim underpinnings by taking her turn with "Your name is Sam, and this is your house, and I am your wife, and I am dying. . ." No sooner said than John Arnone's huge staircase takes on the aura of a bridge between the real world and the next and transforms the acid spiced congeniality into an uncomfortable, ineffectual effort to ease what looks to be the final stage of Jo's death.
In typical Albee fashion neither the hostess or the assembled friends' have much in common with one's image of genuinely loving and supportive friends. The who am I? game identifies where the members of this nasty little friendship circle fit in the pecking order. It's also a microcosm of the American identity overall. Thus, the much married Fred (C. J. Wilson) is the resident bigot, his girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio) the outsider, and nice but simple Lucinda (Catherine Curtin) and Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) the butt of the others' jokes. As the often stinging verbal exchanges and audience addressing asides are flung back and forth, it's clear that another comforting presence is needed to ease Jo through death's doorway. And so, enter the mysterious Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) who seems more like the Angel of Death than Jo's mother as she declares herself to be. With her is an equally enigmatic black escort Oscar (Peter Francis James) who, if you buy into Elizabeth as the Angel of Death, can be seen as a more funny than grim reaper.
Don't expect Albee to fully explain who these people really are, but rest assured that they, especially Oscar, will provide a respite from the darkness with quite a bit of much needed humor. It's this ability to blend stark realism with surreal humor that is at the heart of Albee's great gift. Fortunately, Mr. Esbjornson has mined the comic tone for maximum impact without undercutting the intensity of the pain and suffering.
The first-rate performances of the entire ensemble go a long way to buoy this production. Laila Robins is spectacular as the woman who retains her nasty edge even as she is dying. Her agonized screams of pain are gut wrenching and I was relieved to learn that she's saving her voice by having at least her final off-stage scream pre-recorded.
Jane Alexander is perfection as the elegant, cool and collected, yet ultimately nurturing, Lady from Dubuque (the title is an ironic takeoff on The New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross's description of his pubication's target audience: “One thing I know, it won’t be written for the little old lady from Dubuque”).
Peter Francis James couldn't be better and funnier as Oscar. Michael Hayden's Sam makes you realize that there are stages of acceptance for the soon to be bereaved as well as for the dying. Catherine Curtin's Lucinda embodies the adult who's never outgrown her status as everyone's favorite scapegoat. Thomas Jay Ryan is aptly nice but nebbishy as her protective husband Edgar. Tricia Paoluccio is the most sympathetic and astute of the assembled "friends," aptly spotting the "redneck" inside C.J Wilson's suit and tie and willing to look at rather than away from Jo's suffering.
John Arnone's set takes full advantage of the stage of this largest (299 sears) and most elegant of the new Pershing Square Signature Center's three theaters. His creative colleagues also do top quality work.
With the Pearl Theater Company now making the former Signature space further west its permanent home, and Playwrights Horizon and the neighboring multiplex theater also nearby, this once grungy section of Forty-Second Street — especially with the Pershing Center's lively lobby space open until midnight — is likely to be the new Great White Way for New York's adventurous theater goers.
For more about Edward Albee, including quotes and links to other plays by him that we've reviewed, see our Albee Backgrounder.
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