Lithgow, Glenn Close, Lindsay Duncan Photography by Brigitte
by David Schultz
Pam Mackinnon has lowered the poker hot heat from Edward Albee’s classic in
unusual ways. The intentional restraint must be her goal in presenting her
vision but the production feels sluggish and watered down. That was not the
case in her previous outing with Albee. Last season’s Who’s Afraid of
Virginia Woolf was exceptional and devastating in its depiction of a
married couple in the throes of marital warfare. This Tony Award winning play,
first produced on Broadway in 1966 is an entirely different sort of animal. By
turns, vicious and enigmatic, the themes and unrest of its upper class denizens
are all under the surface. Much of the intense emotional verbal dueling is said
between the words that these well-spoken characters don’t say to each other. It
is a tricky high wire act that Albee creates with unerring ease.
long evening is broken up into three acts, with two brief intermission breaks.
Agnes and Tobias (Glenn Close, John Lithgow) are a middle-aged couple whose
passion and emotional connection is long past its due date. They chat amicably,
drink copiously from their well stocked bar and seem totally removed from each
other, as they seethe with underlying emotional unrest. The couple has a
live-in guest that unsettles the status quo; Agnes’s younger sister Claire
(Lindsay Duncan), a recovering or make that semi-recovering alcoholic. The two
sisters have a love-hate relationship that makes home life unpleasant. Claire
likes to taunt and throw her wicked humor to all who stand in her path, it
creates an interesting dynamic.
the homestead comes daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton) returning after her third
marriage is on the rocks. Having done this each time a relationship folds, her
parents are accepting but fed up with her dissolute behavior. All this is just
a prelude for what’s in store for this family.
doorbell rings and there stand neighbors Harry and Edna (Bob Balaban, Claire
Higgins). Filled with an abject fear of something that is almost impossible to
fathom, this pleasant-appearing couple needs to escape their home and settle in
for the night…with the thought and hope of never leaving. Moving into their
host’s home is their only safe option. The horror and terror of what they are
experiencing is not real, but dread is written on their faces as they attempt,
albeit with a surplus of reticence to put words to the malaise that made them
flee from their homestead.
mysterious, difficult play does get under your skin if you allow it to. The
themes and subtle signposts are all carefully set in place. The astounding set
design (Santo Loquasto) does take your breath away when the curtain rises. The
highly vaulted ceiling with a dazzling chandelier-hanging overhead lights the
impressive furnishings contained within. Gorgeous expensive Chippendale chairs,
plush sofa, decorative lamps, extensive fully stocked wet bar, paintings,
porcelain figures, art de objects, are strewn throughout the expansive living
quarters. The living space has an overly chilly atmosphere, almost tomblike in
its appearance, perfectly in sync with the emotionally frigid family. A
gorgeous, rarely used dining room with large bouquets of flowers on an
extravagant oak dining table is slightly on view stage right. The unobtrusive
lighting (Brian Macdevitt) gives the proceedings just the right amount of
ambience. Costume designer Ann Roth gives each character the proper amount of
excess stylishness that is perfectly in tune with these wealthy suburbanites.
The amusing and frequently alternating flowing outfits the women wear are
expensive and sometimes garish in their execution. The men don’t get off easy
either. Note the wildly contrasting Mr. Rogers-like striped sweater, mixed with
eyeball hurting plaid slacks on Mr. Lithgow in an early scene.
the performers acquit themselves well, though it must be said that Mr. Lithgow
and Ms. Close withhold quite more than necessary. True they are at arms length
with each other in the piece, but they both seem more often than not to keep
the audience at arms length, and at bay as well. This does affect the emotional
journey at hand and definitely mutes the final scenes. This may be the conceit
of director Mackinnon, but it sorely underplays the shattering conclusion. Ms.
Duncan brings just the right mix of sadness and bitchiness to her flashy role as
sister Claire, but here she craftily underplays it, to greater effect. Ms.
Plimpton, in the thankless, slightly underwritten role as daughter Julia,
doesn’t have much to work with. Her pouty and emotional outbursts are
appropriate to the play but become tiring and one-note as the evening wears on.
Mr. Balaban and Ms. Higgins, as Harry and Edna bring a quivering sense of
electricity to the chilly family when they knock on their door. The jolt of
humanity, mingled with a feral sense of entitlement is perfectly captured in
these frightened souls. Their fear of the amorphous plague fouling their psyche
is impeccably rendered. Much of the pleasure to be derived from this potent
work is in deciphering the mixed signals and half-spoken utterances, reading
the pensive, furtive glances, and hearing the empty spaces and words that
cannot emanate from these mortally wounded souls.
Golden Theatre, 252
West 45th Street
through February 22nd
2 hours, 55 min.