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A CurtainUp Review

Think of all the beaches we could see. ---Nancy
I'm happy doing nothing. There's comfort in settling in. ---Charlie

I don't know what it's about. I don't think in those terms. I know what happens, but I don't know what it means. --- Edward Albee, quoted at opening night party for the Lincoln Center revival of Seascape (1975).

Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard
Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When Edward Albee's Seascape, about a conventional older couple and a very unusual younger couple, opened on Broadway in 1975 it featured a glamorous film star, Deborah Kerr, as the older woman, and an unknown named Frank Langella as the younger man. The surreal variation on a favorite Albee device -- a marital foursome's get-together that ends up showing the couples to be more alike than different -- failed at the box office (just 63 performances) but went on to win the second of three Pulitzers for its author (A Delicate Balance & Three Tall Women).

Living as we do in a society in which the teaching of evolution is being questioned by the religious right, the evolutionary process that's part of the getting acquainted conversation between these two couples makes Lincoln Center's revival come across more as a timely, newly minted work than a revival. Of course, the success of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? have also acclimated audiences to Albee's affinity for interchanges between human and other species, and Seascape, for all its surrealism, is one of his most accessible plays. Though touching on serious and timeless questions of loneliness and death, there's nothing dark about either couple's relationship. In fact, except from the usual differences and difficult patches in their marriage, Nancy and Charlie, the human couple, are no deeply dysfunctional Martha and George -- and Leslie and Sarah, the lizards, though no longer content under water, also seem to be a compatible pair.

Actually, Albee though widely perceived as a deep and difficult to fathom playwright, has always written dialogue that's not only exquisitely witty but full of sly humor. But in Seascape, especially the first act in which Nancy and Charlie bicker about how they should be spending their golden years, the laughs are nonstop, often drowning out some of the dialogue the way Neil Simon 's comedies did in their heyday. Yet, for all the laughs, having Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard, two topflight actors who are admittedly in their seventies, portray Nancy and Charlie gives a special poignancy to their differing approaches to facing the final stage of their life and relationship. Sternhagen's Nancy is still eager for new experiences, while Grizzard's Charlie just wants to take things easy. Even as they're enjoying their beach holiday, she's doing something creative -- sketching -- and eager to know who the people she spots at the water's edge might be; while he's unreceptive to her proposed plans to visit every beach in the world", preferring the comfort of settling in."

The other couple, a pair of talking lizards with the very unextraordinary human names Sarah (Elizabeth Marvel) and Leslie (Frederick Weller), don't clamber over the dunes until the end of the first act. They are wondrously lizard-like in appearance and movement (bravo to costume designer Catherine Zuber and movement coordinator Rick Sordelet!). The fact that they speak perfect English adds to the drollness of the getting acquainted scene which director Mark Lamos never allows to get out of hand.

Marvel and Weller manage to display distinct personalities even though they never shed their reptilian costumes -- she's Nancy-like in her curiosity, he's macho and more guarded. But that said, their slithering around the beach, true to Albee's conceit of having them symbolize these sea creatures' becoming part of the evolutionary cycle, can't escape coming off as an extended joke which Albee clearly had a lot of fun concocting. As Nancy and Charlie's attempt to explain human behavior to the inexperienced aliens from the sea and in the process reassess their own taken for granted assumptions, the play takes a turn into a split personality -- a moving and funny first act, and too broadly comic and talky second act.

Even if not perfect from start to finish, Seascape brims with Albeean wit and affection for all creatures, whether human or lizard-skinned. And Michael Yeargan's breathtaking beach set, gorgeously sunlit by Peter Kaczorowski, beckons you to spend a day at the beach with this quartet of superb Albee interpreters.

By Edward Albee
Directed by Mark Lamos
Cast: George Grizzard,, Elizabeth Marvel, Frances Sternhagen, Frederick Weller
Set Design: Michael Yeargan..
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Aural Fixation.
Movement Coordinator: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Lincoln Center production at Booth Theatre 222 West 45th Street 212/239/6200
From 10/28/05; opening 11/21/05. Running Time
Tuesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm
Last performance 12/31/05
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 2nd performance
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