It's not surprising that the latest work from the American playwright Edward Albee, The Play About the Baby, should premiere in London's hottest fringe theater, the Almeida. Albee's relationship with critics has often been bumpy and he makes no secret of his belief that neither Broadway nor London's West End is the center of the theater universe. His first major play, The Zoo Story, opened in Berlin in 1959, Three Tall Women played first in Vienna, in 1991, and for several years in the '80s Albee's plays were more often seen in smaller European, Latin American and U.S. venues than in New York or London.
His occasional grumpiness has not hindered Albee's success, a few unexceptional pieces notwithstandingSo in the thin recent years London audiences and critics have adored restagings of Three Tall Women, A Delicate Balance and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
So the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner has usually gone his own way, and he does it again with The Play About the Baby, a dark and witty account of two couples--the combination of jaded Man and Woman vs. innocent Boy and Girl that provided a similar dramatic tension in 1962's Virginia Woolf. Whether or not it turns into the same sort of blockbuster--Virginia Woolf won a Pulitzer only after contention in the prize committee but caught the public ear and later became a hit movie--this startling play will add to his reputation as a great American playwright.
The Play About the Baby is packed with familiar Albee themes--memory, illusion, self-deception, repetition--but each seems fresh rather than stale. Dressed in Albee's artful language, a notion like illusion becomes a sharp probe into human need and frailty, a new critique of society, not a rehash. The acting, too, is of the brilliant standard that audiences can expect from the Almeida. As Man, Alan Howard is sinister and wry. As Woman, the arch Frances de la Tour has a spectacular range of expression and Albee gives her plenty to play with: she vamps around the stage, recalling a youth of handsome lovers, and tosses off such unlikely lines as "What a wangled teb we weave" with real panache. Her entire performance is one great nod and wink. Girl, a young mother played sweetly by Zoe Waites, could be cloying but isn't. Rupert Penry-Jones, as Boy, can signal youth, sexual potency and invincibility as well as he telegraphs fear and pain.
There is plenty of fear and pain for the young couple. Man and Woman conspire to undermine Boy and Girl, to drive them mad with grief and then mad with doubt. The two couples are different: one scarred, full of history; the other untouched except by love, hope and the magic of parenthood. As they begin to learn the ways of older couples--how to communicate, how to deal with jealousy--they are at least dimly aware of their innocence. When the cruelty mounts, Boy pleads for mercy: "I can take pain and loss and all the rest--later. But now we're happy. We love each other. I'm hard all the time. We don't even understand each other yet."
Much of the play is about truth and storytelling, the easy embroidery of anecdote or biography. Is the story of a relationship between two people one history, or two? If you had to, how would you prove who you are, or who you once were? Man suggests that reality is a human creation: "How things fade! We are left with invention, reinvention. Our reality is determined by our need."
Albee experiments with form, toying with the conventions of drama. Like the young couple whose story is doubted and undermined, the audience itself is made uncomfortable, forced to doubt, by un-actorly behavior. The play repeats itself disconcertingly and is dissected by the cast. "I love this speech," Man whispers to the crowd. In other asides, the actors pretend not to be actors.
One reason the play works so well may be the cast's extensive familiarity with Albee. Frances de la Tour was in Three Tall Women and director Howard Davies directed the revival of Virginia Woolf as well as a recent staging, again at the Almeida, of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh--another play of self-deception and repetition.
Baby is Albee's first major work since 1991's Three Tall Women, and despite the huge popularity of recent restagings and his own success, he is aware that every new play hangs out there, naked. "I have no idea how a mass of people will respond to a dramatic event I have longed to subject them to," he writes. "I never know. I live in a state of startlement, I guess." A playwright, in other words, is not so very different from his audience.
London, The Arts, Theater:
14.9.1998, pp 62.