Directed by Mark Lamos
With George Grizzard, Elizabeth Marvel, Frances Sternhagen, Frederick Weller
Produced by Lincoln Center Theater
At the Booth Theatre, New York City
One of the virtues Edward Albee doesn’t get enough credit for is simplicity. His most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, takes place in real time, on one set, and features two married couples exchanging words. But what worlds are contained in the words those couples spew at each other! Last season’s revival, with Kathleen Turner and the revelatory Bill Irwin as Martha and George, reassured me that Albee’s battling quartet will be alive and kicking ideas, emotions and theatrical magic back and forth as long as people are interested in theater.
Seascape, originally produced some dozen years after the 1962 Woolf, is another real time, one-set, two-couple play — with the slight adjustment that one of the couples are lizards. Human-sized lizards. Who speak English. And who come to seem as real as any characters one sees on stage, despite their scales and tails.
Albee uses this simple scaffolding as the springboard for a multiplicity of ideas, including and definitely not limited to mortality; civilization and its discontents; the nature of love; the battle of the sexes; and evolution — not so much the how of it but the why. And while it’s nowhere near as witty/bitchy/funny as Woolf (very few things are), the Lincoln Center Theater revival, directed well by Mark Lamos, does find the play’s humor, while still respecting its intellectual undercurrents.
The human couple, Nancy and Charlie, are played by two true pros, Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard. Grizzard is an Albee veteran — he was the original Nick in the 1962 Woolf and won a Tony Award for the revival of A Delicate Balance a few years back, and Sternhagen has played, well, just about everything. Their dual portrait of a marriage at a turning point (she is looking for some kind of life, or meaning, to fill their remaining “golden years;” he is ostensibly seeking a rest, and a respite, from the world) takes up most of the first act. If there’s any fault to the play, or this staging of it, it’s that this couple — interesting as they are and interesting as the actors make them — are essentially being used to set up the more dramatic battles that take place in Act II.
But Act II is worth the wait, for that’s where we meet Leslie and Sarah (Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel), the strangely beautiful sea creatures who have crawled up on to the beach — to explore and possibly to stay. Weller made a strong impression in Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out as a barely civilized baseball player mouthing ugly racist and homophobic remarks. Marvel has done outstanding theater work, with emotionally naked yet carefully controlled performances in Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire at New York Theater Workshop.
The lizards’ appearance snaps several of Albee’s themes into focus, as Nancy and Charlie try to explain human emotions (among other things) to the mostly instinctual Leslie and Sarah. Again, Albee’s simplicity stands out, as the conversations become a way to explore basic questions: Why do parents love their children, and what does love mean? Is it better to be aware one is going to die, or to swim along with no foreknowledge of mortality? And if we (humans) are so superior and so “civilized,” why are we also so primitively afraid of the unknown?
Please don’t get the idea that Seascape is some sort of dry intellectual debate. It’s funny — both funny-strange and funny ha-ha (and both of those are compliments). For instance, no one on stage thinks it odd that lizards should speak and understand English. Well, nobody wondered why everyone in the galaxy spoke English to Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock either. Perhaps the lizards aren’t real; perhaps they are a challenge that Nancy summons up to bring Charlie back from the brink of death-in-life retirement in some senior citizen village. Or maybe we can talk to sea creatures, we just don’t know that we can. This open-ended quality seems to be implicit in the play’s structure — the very last word spoken in Seascape is “begin.”
Albee is playing not only with ideas but with theatrical forms, harking back to his beginnings in the Theater of the Absurd while respecting — as he always has — the power and precision of language. It’s another compliment that I left the theater thinking, conjecturing exactly what Albee had in mind when he coupled these couples together on the beach. I believe he wants us to leave without a satisfying sense of closure, without answering definitively his, and our, questions. If you’re lucky enough to see this production, you’ll leave with your own opinions — and they may not be the ones you walked into the theater with.