The Lady From Dubuque is the Angel of Death, and she appears, smartly-tailored in scarlet and black and in the person of Irene Worth, at the end of the first act of Edward Albee's tricky, somewhat strained, oddly bifurcated, and finally compelling two-act play "The Lady From Dubuque," which opened last night at the Morosco.
Up to that moment, we have been observing three unappealing couples in their thirties, two married and one about to be, during the late stages of a Saturday night get-together in a well-to-do suburban community. Fred, who will take Carol for his fourth wife, has been drinking much more than the others, and Jo, the pale-blond hostess, has a viper's tongue, her invective aimed particularly at Lucinda, a statuesque but otherwise uninteresting blond they all - even her retiring husband Edgar - seem to scorn, though I must admit I found Lucinda the least offensive of the lot. Sam, the host, has been encouraging game-playing, but the party is obviously running down.
The highly-charged atmosphere bears some resemblance to that of the author's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But these people have been given no backgrounds, really, and we are as uneasy in their presence as we are disquieted by Rouben Ter-Arutunian's stark and expansive gray setting with its long, leathery upholstered sofa and chairs and severe staircase leading up to the sleeping quarters.
Well, okay, they don't behave like any couples we know, but they are. Albee people, and we've grown used to them over the years. Still, something's wrong. Every now and then someone will deliver an aside to the audience, even remark on its response to a laugh line, and often as not somebody else will pick up on the aside and bring it back into the general conversation. We are also made aware that the sharp-tongued Jo is in pain, and we begin to sense that Sam has arranged this party, or gathering, for her benefit. This is a "death house," as he refers to it. But it is not until the guests have gone and Jo doubles up and must be carried upstairs, that it is fully borne in on us that she is in the terminal stages of her illness, quite obviously cancer-ridden though like everything else in the play, this is never spelled out for us.
Morning comes, Sam sleepily descends in his nightshirt, discovers the strange woman who claims to be Jo's mother and to come from Dubuque (Jo's mother lives in New Jersey) and her aide, Oscar, a tall, elegantly-stooped black man, played by Earle Hyman. Curtain.
The rest of the play is given over to Sam's protests, Oscar's restraint of Sam (Oscar is an expert at this sort of thing among other matters knowing the exact location of pressure points inducing unconsciousness); the return of last night's guests who readily accept Elizabeth's status in spite of Sam's objections, and finally the appearance of a wan Jo who goes to the sofa and sinks her head in the older woman's lap to be "mothered" until she dies, after which Elizabeth and Oscar promptly take their leave.
It is, obviously, a painful play about death and loss, but viewed clinically, and with almost no concessions made to the audience, for the ever-smirking Elizabeth and Oscar are fully as unpleasant in their special ways as the others. And Jo, except in her final expressions of love for her desolated husband, is surely a congenital scold, cancer or no cancer. But the majesty of death is there, along with the pain - its approach signaled by such casual phrases as Sam's "Come back" when Jo is stepping outside to comfort the tongue-lashed Lucinda who is weeping and tearing at the grass outside.
Everything - the seemingly trivial and ill-balanced first act, the uncongenial company and visitors - is pointed toward that final moment of release. You will not like the play - you may even be impatient with it, as I was much of the time - but you won't be able to escape its chilling power.
Worth, the star, is an elegant and commanding Angel of Death, and Hyman struggles as best he can with a somewhat superfluous role in which Oscar is forced to make too many smug jests about blacks (there are also unamusing references to his color by others). Tony Musante is able to wring some pity out of the part of Sam, and Maureen Anderman is both an attractive and amusing Carol.
But it is difficult to play with parts that might just as easily have worn simple labels - Angel of Death, Pain, Pity Loutishness (that's Fred, portrayed by Baxter Harris), Ignorance (Celia Weston's vapid Lucinda), and Futility (David Leary's ineffectual Edgar).
Alan Schneider has directed the play in keeping with the author's cool, clinical approach to his mysterious subject, which means simply that he has probably followed Albee's stage directions to the letter moving the players about like chess pieces.
It's a troubling evening but an individual one by a voice unlike any other on our stage. And that's something.
Edward Albee's new play, The Lady From Dubuque, which opened officially last night at the Morosco Theater, was said, by advance word, not to be a mystery. Advance word was slightly misleading, for from the play's very title onwards it is definitely, even defiantly mysterious.
If one wanted to categorize Albee's new work I suppose it would be fair to call it a comedy of manners about death. It also might be fair to call it a melodrama of manners about death. It also might be fair to call it a melodrama about the quest for identity. The two plays, or at least the two themes, are intermeshed in counterpoint, until they are resolved with a question mark at the end.
The play starts in a drawing room - a gem of architectural planning by Rouben Ter-Arutunian that leads one to expect more elegant inhabitants. Strangely enough the people are coarse-grained and mid-culted. Even when they plan games - which is just what they are doing on curtain rise - they clamber above nothing more sophisticated than 20 questions, and have difficulty even with that.
Six couples - three men, three women. Professions, unspecified, their friendships unexplained. The hostess is dying - very painfully of cancer. The conversations, with some of the lines directed straight at the audience as if to involve them in a conspiracy, are abrasive.
The humor is bitchy/semi-smart, ribald rather than witty, bludgeoning rather than cutting. You wonder what these people see in one another - and you may question what there is for us to see in them. At times they are boorish to the point of boring, and their shrill play-time chatter, despite its certain swirling undercurrent of portentous seriousness, begins to pall.
Yet the situation is real enough - a woman, Jo, is dying out there on that stage, and she and her husband, Sam, are attempting to accomodate their varying varieties of pain and loss. Behind all the bickering lies the specter of a death, a somber fact that endows the most banal situations with a common dignity.
The guests, after a final irresolute squabble, leave. The man carries his tortured wife to bed. Two strangers enter - obviously the long-awaited Lady From Dubuque and her male companion. They seem perfectly at home as the curtain falls.
Who are they, this fashionable woman of uncertainly certain years, and her urbane black lover? Both the playwright and the director, Alan Schneider, have gone on record saying that these two are not "Angels of Death," but despite all such protestations that is how they function.
The strength of the play is to be found in the irony and coarseness of the writing, the verbal clarity, the ivory turn of phrase, and, most important of all, in Albee's bone-dry, distilled-ice-cold compassion for human frailty.
The weakness of the play is in its theatrical contrivance. The first act set-up almost seems to be something left over from a different play, the asides to the audience strike me as a defensive attempt to involve the audience in play-games that lack immediacy, and finally there is the smokescreen around the visitors which often seems more obscurantist than mythic or even just plain mysterious.
The acting was extraordinarily nice, and Schneider's direction is as cool and as distanced as Ter-Arutunian's setting. Two performances seemed perfectly irreplaceable, Irene Worth's Elizabeth and Earle Hyman's Oscar, both of which are as good if not better than anything we have had on Broadway this season.
Tony Musante, in a spunky, sassy performance, makes a fine Sam, Frances Conroy wilts with spirit as the dying Jo, and Maureen Anderman charms as the one no-nonsense character in a whole cageful of illusions and accomodations.
Unlike most of Albee's plays this one seems designed to make people talk rather than make them think - but it has the hand of a master. It is richly worth seeing, particularly in this season of our discontent.
Edward Albee's "The Lady From Dubuque" is a play in two acts and three questions, none of which -- as Irene Worth points out in an aside to the audience -- is ever answered.
First question: "Who am I?" As the curtain rises on Rouben Ter-Arutunian egg-shell gray setting; a group of presumed friends are playing a game. Actor Tony Musante, the rattled host of the occasion, has thrown out a few clues to his adopted identity, and the others are supposed to be guessing who he is. They aren't trying very hard, though. There's more hostility than sport in their indifferent replies. In fact, the question is really met with a counterquestion: "Where else can you come in this cold world week after week" one of the group asks, "and the guaranteed ridicule and contempt?"
We hear the contempt, all right, though we're hard put to assign it a cause. Perhaps Mr. Albee is playing his own game within a game. Is any one of these guests actually certain of his or her identity? (Not a deep question, not a new one, but we must clutch at straws.) If we can't account for the ridicule, however, we can put a name to the nervousness that keeps erupting around the glass coffee table. Mr. Musante's wife is dying, probably of cancer, and she will not shut up about it.
Frances Conroy plays the young woman who is waiting for Doomsday (it will come after Thursday) and plays it with an uncommon bitterness. She doesn't want pity for her plight. She wants to make the pain real. The actress does so. Red-gold hair pulled back from her temples into a very tight knot, she rubs her bony knuckles together to stave off tears, all but bites anyone daring to show her solicitude, gasps and claws at the air like a bird with a wing gone as a sudden seizure overtakes her. Carried upstairs, she slips from her husband's grasp to hang limp as an emptied-out rag doll along the railing. "I weigh nothing, I'm air," she says when she can speak. The performance is not appealing; it is honest, I think.
Second question: "Who are they?" At the end of the play's first half, with the stage temporarily deserted, Irene Worth strides firmly into view along the barren back wall. She wears a vivid red coat that shocks the back wall into life, she sports a trailing ankle-length fur boa that rises to join her wrap-around crown -- making her look like the question mark she is -- and she brings with her a black companion, Earle Hyman (the dark angel?).
Discovered by the others (after an intermission), the pair is subjected to a steady, furtive buzz of "who are they?" for quite a long time. It would seem that Miss Worth is the dying girl's mother, from a farm in Dubuque, though the mother has never been on a farm, never lived in Dubuque, and in no way resembles this stately presence. Miss Worth stands her ground. presumably she has come to help her daughter die, though in fact it is Mr. Hyman who does all of the work, physically disposing of those who would interfere (karate, he has his black belt) and -- ultimately -- carrying the victim to her end.
Miss Worth's task, if it can be called one, is to sit on a black leather sofa and radiate serenity. It is astonishing how much sheer light she can summon up inside her, allowing it to escape through glittering eyes and an ecstatic smile -- carving out for herself one secure and shining space in what is otherwise a turbulent void.
Miss Worth makes music of phrases that are so ordinary as to be little more than stammers ("I'm from Dubuque, I'm the lady from Dubuque") and then miraculously draws swift laughter with the precise "I do not summer in Dubuque." The sheer spectacle of her gripping the rising handrail and arching her back in piercing laughter -- penetrating the conversational fog around her -- is breathtaking. All of this with nothing to do but wait for the remaining question.
Third question: "Who are you?" Since it is addressed to Miss Worth, it may strike you that this query is more or less implicit in the preceding one ("Who are they?"), but Mr. Albee's figures have a habit of making quite a problem out of shifting from one pronoun to another, and Miss Worth must smile and purr and purr and smile while coping with a continues inquisition that would do credit to Torquemada. Needless to say, her unhappy interrogators get no further information from her, not even confirmation that she is not the lady from Dubuque for whom Harold Ross would not produce a magazine. In any case, at evening's end we are left with our three questions and one death, which do not seem to me to constitute a play.
In spite of at least three inventive performances under Alan Schneider's understandably groping direction (Mr. Hyman is splendid, too), several things are most seriously wrong. In pursuing his identity-quiz, the talented Mr. Albee has neglected a small matter he dared not neglect. With all the questions being fired, he has failed to give his on-stage mannequins any actual identities to uncover. We're shooting at zeros.
Oh, little labels are pinned on the personnel from time to time, almost as afterthoughts, always at secondhand. We're told that one male neighbor is vulgar and a "floosie-bopper." We do gather that a generally ignored blonde has difficulty getting jokes and hates it when people don't say good night to her. Her husband pastes a tag on himself, referring to himself as "the village martyr," though we're left wondering just what the instant-bio means. The questions seem doubly abstract because the answers aren't really people. Like the unlucky girl, they weigh nothing. They're air.
Furthermore, Mr. Albee is still working in an ornately convoluted "literary" style that has no conversational feel to it, so that when we are given a snatch of characterization to cling to, it's apt to come out as, "I am his only friend whose every virtue embarrasses him." By the time we've got the syntax unraveled, the play has moved on to new difficulties.
Most importantly, if Mr. Albee wishes to continue indulging himself in the sort of philosophical speculation he's lately become addicted to (I find this speculation thinnish and familiar), he must first put some muscle, some tangible flesh and blood, on stage to serve as base. We know that the playwright can draw vigorous men and women. If only he'll begin doing so again, I'm sure he'll find that all sorts of mating-games, baiting-games, even end-of-the-world games can be played 'round and about them. Here, the play is far too much like its expiring heroine. "My arms go around bone," her husband says, "She diminishes."