Till Death Do Us Part 

Two Edward Albee plays probe the tangle of love and despair

For more than four decades, Edward Albee has been challenging, confusing and sometimes even boring theatergoers -- always on his own exasperating, uncompromising terms. Though Albee has received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama, he defiantly refuses to play safe with success. He demands the right to experiment, the right to wander rather than to ascend, the precious right to fail. This week, local productions of two Albee plays, written more than a quarter-century apart, provide an intriguing duotone of the dramatist as both a rising star and a weary traveler.

The Zoo Story, an ominous parable that chronicles a chance meeting in Central Park, reveals Albee on the cusp. When this, his first produced play, debuted off Broadway in 1960, it ran for nineteen months. Its unprecedented success anointed the obscure writer America's newest Very Important Playwright, a judgment that was confirmed two years later with the opening of his first Broadway offering, the explosive Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Because The Zoo Story was written by the often cryptic Albee, today one is tempted to describe it as deceptively simple. But there's nothing deceptive about it: Peter is reading a book when his privacy is intruded upon by Jerry, a stranger who is determined to talk. Within a matter of minutes, both their lives will be profoundly altered.

But nothing is that simple in a Hydeware Theatre production. Hydeware's goal is to shake things up, to challenge an audience to look beyond the obvious or expected. Here the company enacts the 45-minute play twice, with the same two actors switching roles for the second rendering. It's a legitimate approach. Albee's words, which always tinker with the nuances of language, can benefit from a second hearing.

By Hydeware standards, Act 1 is condescendingly conventional. The viewer enters a spacious loft at the Art Coop, sits in a prosceniumlike space and peers through the imaginary fourth wall at a simple set: a bench, a tree, some leaves projected on the rear wall. Midway through the performance, some prerecorded sounds of a distant barking dog deliver an all-too-obvious underscoring of Jerry's now-famous speech about his unhappy relationship with a dog. As directed by Richard Strelinger, the actors -- Brian Hyde as the bookish Peter and John Shepherd as the intrusive Jerry -- are competent enough, although Shepherd's singsong delivery in time becomes as predictable as a metronome.

But with Act 2 the evening moves beyond the conventional. After the intermission, viewers return to the theater to discover that the set has been changed. Forget pretty leaves projected on the rear wall; suddenly there is real grass. No longer is the audience an objective onlooker; now the viewers are in the park, watching events unfold as if from the next bench. Gone is the distant dog; instead The Zoo Story assumes an air of urgency.

One of the themes of Albee's play is that "sometimes it's necessary to go a long way out of your way" to get to where you're going. That premise also holds true for this double-barreled evening. Yet one begins to wonder whether the first version isn't so intentionally on the nose simply to set up the second. If so, there's something disingenuous about purposely staging mundane theater in order to make good theater look even better.

But Hydeware has done more than merely deconstruct its own opening production. Act 2 also deconstructs The Zoo Story itself by radically altering the thrust of Albee's ending. This is baldly, blatantly wrong. As commendable as it might be to encourage viewers to rethink a play, it's something else again to purposely warp that play's intent. Nevertheless, until the final minutes, this well-acted second telling provides compelling, involving theater.

Now jump ahead 27 years, during which time Virginia Woolf's George and Martha became a part of the culture and Albee won Pulitzers for A Delicate Balance (1966) and Seascape (1975). After he lost his audience with bewildering plays such as Tiny Alice and The Lady From Dubuque, he beat a reluctant retreat from Broadway while quietly stating that he intended to "outlast" his critics. That's precisely what he did. His reputation was restored in 1994 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women. The overlooked Marriage Play was Albee's final script-in-eclipse before his resurrection.

Here's the plot: Jack comes home after a hard day's work and announces to Gillian, his wife of 30 years, "I'm leaving you." Everything else after the play's third line is embellishment. "What do you mean?" Gillian replies to Jack's startling news. A moment later, Jack finds himself hurling the same question back at his spouse: "What do you mean?" It's the motif for the evening. What indeed does Albee mean? Do these characters really mean what they say? Twenty-seven years after The Zoo Story, Albee is still taking a scalpel to the texture and shading of words.

Actually, Marriage Play's use of mocking invective is more akin to Virginia Woolf than to The Zoo Story. In a way, this is Virginia Woolf revisited, George and Martha without the backstory. Strip away the college-campus locale and the impending visit of Nick and Honey, and Marriage Play might be an alternate version of Virginia Woolf's opening scene. But if that play is an oratorio, this 70-minute one-act is merely a movement, mostly a scherzo.

There are other distinctions between the two one-acts: In The Zoo Story, all action builds to the violence of the final minute; in Marriage Play, the most violent moment occurs at the outset with Jack's pronouncement. If The Zoo Story is a brash account of a big, brutal, predetermined death, Marriage Play is a more rueful drama, concerned with the small, corrosive, intangible deaths that occur every day -- the death of dependency, the death of trust, the death of love -- none inevitable and all likely the result of carelessness and neglect.

When, at evening's end, Gillian muses, "I dreamed you loved me," one might wonder whether the entire play is a dream. That's because the disembodied dialogue is composed in what is now readily recognized as the Albee style. The great theater critic Harold Clurman once defined that style as language that "seems written from a tomb, a world on the other side of existence."

Ostensibly Marriage Play is set in Jack and Gillian's home. But this Spotlight Theatre production is being performed in a cozy space that, with its rich cranberry-sherbet walls, might well pass for a luxurious tomb. Living room or grave for the dead, this intimate environment, like Act 2 of The Zoo Story, effectively forces the viewer into the play. Once again, there's no escaping the raw fact that we are a part of the action.

As Jack and Gillian, Peter Mayer and Judi Mann perform like riders on a seesaw. When one is up, the other is down. He is at his most affecting when at his most vulnerable. (In response to the aforementioned "I dreamed you loved me," Mayer's despairing reply, "I do," is heartfelt and wrenching.) She is at her most persuasive when least defensive, when she's able to toss away lines as easily as she can toss a book onto the sofa. But there are moments when a viewer almost wishes that director Joneal Joplin had told auditioning actors he was casting Neil Simon's Marriage Play. The pace could benefit from fewer heavy pauses and a less reverential tone.

Yet seriousness is hard to avoid when you stage Albee. If the playwright had his way, he would direct every production of all his works. That's not possible, so he does the next best (worst) thing: He expects actors to follow the precise blueprint of italicized words, commas and semicolons that he intricately charts in his scripts. It takes a brave company to ignore all that free advice. If such irreverence is exactly what's needed, there's also a sense of event here at attending this rarely produced part of the Albee canon.

Back in 1971, Albee told an interviewer, "I write plays about how people waste their lives." These two one-acts, written 27 years apart, would suggest that, despite the many highs and lows of a jagged career, the moral imperative that underlies the vast body of his work has been remarkably consistent.

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