Anyone who saw the original production of Edward Albee's "Seascape" in 1975 remembers that it featured a rare Broadway appearance by Deborah Kerr, then in her mid 50s but looking much younger.
Anyone noticing that the current revival, at the Booth, stars Frances Sternhagen can only wonder why an actress who makes no bones about her age would have been cast in Kerr's role.
The reason is that an older actress makes much more sense
The play begins with an elderly couple sunning themselves on a beach, musing about how they will spend what remains of their lives.
This must have seemed very abstract 30 years ago, since Kerr (and Barry Nelson) clearly had a long way to go.
Now, however, with Sternhagen and George Grizzard, the issue is more pressing and more poignant.
Suddenly, two human-size lizards - whose English is only slightly less literate than that of the humans -come up over the dunes.
After some wary sparring, the four begin to compare their experiences - the lizards have spawned thousands of children, the humans just three.
Sometimes their conversation is witty, sometimes crude, as when the female lizard discusses her husband's pride in the size of his tail.
Inevitably, the conversation drifts toward evolution, a concept the lizards don't seem ready to grasp. After a while they return to the sea, and the old folks return to their musings.
As works of art go, seascapes tend to be light and airy rather than profound. Because the casting was confusing 30 years ago, the play seemed more pretentious and weighty than it does now. This time, however, it's thoroughly entertaining.
Sternhagen brings a crotchety charm to her role. Grizzard suggests the bewilderment of aging males beautifully.
Needless to say, Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel - in brilliantly detailed costumes designed by Catherine Zuber - are wonderfully droll as the lizards.
The dunes that set designer Michael Yeargan has created have a powerful sculptural quality, heightened by Peter Kaczorowski's moody lighting.
Thirty years have not made the play seem deeper, but the clarity of this production, directed by Mark Lamos, makes it more enjoyable.
An elderly, comfortably off couple are on a beach, chattering and bickering about their past and present, and considering what they might do in the declining years of their future.
Suddenly, two giant lizards emerge from the sea and clamber onto the beach beside them.
Luckily, the lizards speak English, and the couples exchange notes on life and its evolution. After some initial hesitation, the lizard couple decide to stick it out on Earth.
That is the central premise - virtually the entire story - of Edward Albee's wry, wise, witty and altogether delightful comedy of species, "Seascape," revived last night by the Lincoln Center Theater at the Booth Theatre.
The two couples - Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard as the prickly human couple, Nancy and Charlie, and Elizabeth Marvel and Frederick Weller, as Sarah and Leslie, their scaly opposite numbers - banter ideas around like an urbane, if uncertain, game of shuttlecock.
When the play was new in 1974, before it won a Pulitzer Prize, the reception was decidedly mixed.
Although some hailed it as Albee's finest play to date, one called it a "two-hour sleeping pill," another termed it "a shovelful of phony art, fake sensitivity and ersatz eloquence," while a third began: "Edward Albee's 'Seascape' is the kind of play that can be loved only by God and Clive Barnes, at least one of whom doesn't exist." (I pinched myself after that one to see if I was still around.)
Whether God loved it or not remains a mystery. As for myself, I believe Albee's plays are never lovable, nor are they intended to be. I admire "Seascape" a great deal, and find it, then as now, infinitely more stimulating than at least 97 percent of the plays out there.
It is the work of a master, provocative and funny, although there are plays in the Albee canon that I admire even more.
It seems that Albee's point of departure in "Seascape" could well be Samuel Beckett's own beach-blanket frolic "Happy Days," and there is a certain family resemblance between Albee's Nancy and Beckett's eternally optimistic Winnie.
Both playwrights are here lightheartedly concerned with the normally heavy stuff of human existence. And both seem to conclude that existence is the self-fulfilling destiny of the life force - an extension, perhaps, of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," and an echo of Beckett's own muted clarion call to "Go on!"
The 1974 production was staged by Albee himself. Here Mark Lamos does the very fluent honors, stressing the crotchety criss-crossing dialogue of both couples.
Michael Yeargan's sandy beach setting, swept with a blue sky and lit by Peter Kaczorowski's lively imitation of the sun, is by itself a pleasure to watch, as are the performances.
Sternhagen seems to have distilled "charming eccentricity" and bottled it like a patent medicine; Grizzard, gruff and craggy, his eyebrows constantly signaling skepticism, perhaps reveals the golden years more realistically.
The lizards -wonderfully costumed by Catherine Zuber - turn their anthropomorphism to deliciously comic effect, with Weller's high-plumed, scaly-tailed machismo neatly matched by Marvel’s proto-feminism.
Go and see "Seascape" - tell them God sent you!
Let's play "Name That Play." I'll give you a plot synopsis; you tell me the title of the agreeably acted, audience-friendly and finger-slender revival that opened on Broadway last night at the Booth Theater.
Here goes: An elderly couple is on a waterside vacation. He's a curmudgeon, ready to settle down into a perpetual nap; she's an eternal pixie who keeps prodding him to live, live, live. But then unexpected, potentially hostile visitors enter the picture, bringing the old spouses' feelings about love, mortality and human existence into sharp, redemptive focus.
Gotcha! The sentimental comedy in question is not Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond," which opened and closed on Broadway earlier this year. It's "On Golden Sea" - I mean, "Seascape," Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winner from 1975, which has been given a comfy new production by Lincoln Center Theater, directed by Mark Lamos and starring George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen.
Now comfy is not a word often associated with the author of discomfiting depictions of matrimony like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "A Delicate Balance." Nor is the sugar-sprinkling Mr. Thompson a writer who naturally springs to mind in association with the bile-dispensing Mr. Albee.
Yet Mr. Lamos's production of "Seascape" exudes a misty, down-home charm that does indeed evoke Mr. Thompson's crowd pleaser about the twilight years of a devoted husband and wife. Of course, this may have something to do with the presence of the ever-vital Ms. Sternhagen, who put on old-lady makeup to play Ethel in the first Broadway production of "On Golden Pond" 26 years ago.
Parallels are also heightened by the casting of performers who are both in their mid-70's and here wear a shared air of plain-spoken folksiness. Mr. Grizzard's and Ms. Sternhagen's parts were originated in the 1975 production (which ran for only 63 performances) by Barry Nelson and Deborah Kerr, who were then in their mid-50's and urbane, glamorous figures.
But it turns out that aging the leading characters in "Seascape" only underscores elements of sweetness and optimism that were always central to this philosophical comedy and may account in part for its failing to find an audience among sophisticates who wanted to be shocked and disturbed by Mr. Albee. True, the play does feature the surreal inclusion of two human-sized, English-speaking sea lizards, here portrayed by Elizabeth Marvel and Frederick Weller, as well as Mr. Albee's expected lyrical meditations on various brain-churning -ologies (ontology, eschatology, phenomenology).
Yet "Seascape" stands out, even alone, in the Albee canon as a full-length play that finds hope in the shadow of death and tender loving care in the institution of marriage. It is, in a way, the anti-"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (a work, by the way, that notoriously did not win the Pulitzer).
So perhaps this revival will draw theatergoers who stayed away from Anthony Page's superb and all too short-lived production of "Virginia Woolf" earlier this year. "Seascape" does not leave you scratching your head in confusion and consternation the way much of Albee does. On the other hand, it does leave you hungry.
The plot of "Seascape" (and plot is a generous word here) is centered on Charlie (Mr. Grizzard) and Nancy (Ms. Sternhagen), who are discovered on a sunny shore (the conventional sand-dune set is by Michael Yeargan) discussing their future and their past. Now that their children are grown, Nancy wants to travel and explore; George just wants to stay home and rest.
Their debate is interrupted by the arrival of Leslie (Mr. Weller) and Sarah (Ms. Marvel), fearsome looking, green-gilled amphibians (Catherine Zuber designed the splendid long-tailed costumes), making their maiden exploratory voyage on dry land. And guess what? They can talk. They also turn out to have a comfortably monogamous relationship similar to that of Charlie and Nancy, who wonderingly take it upon themselves, as Charlie puts it, to "explain evolution to a couple of lizards."
Sounds kind of cute by Albee standards, doesn't it? And Mr. Lamos's production enhances instead of disguises the whiff of whimsical gimmickry. There's just a suggestion of Ma Kettle in Ms. Sternhagen's interpretation that doesn't quite jibe with her character's worldly way with a metaphor and French literary references.
Mr. Weller's macho lizard (a role for which Frank Langella won a Tony), while often funny, is also too cartoonish for credibility. But Ms. Marvel, a busy and a versatile New York actress who seems incapable of giving a miscalculated performance, is quite touching as Leslie's she-creature. And her and Mr. Weller's reciprocally protective body language becomes in itself an artful portrait of a marriage. (Credit should presumably be shared for this by Rick Sordelet, the production's movement coordinator.)
It is Mr. Grizzard, who played Charlie for Mr. Lamos at the Hartford Stage in 2002, who sounds the depths in this production. A Tony winner for his first-rate work in the 1996 revival of "A Delicate Balance," he again poignantly captures the fear that underlies the gruff wryness of Mr. Albee's men. Charlie's sad, marveling reminiscences of boyhood underwater games here become a gorgeous marriage of a playwright's finespun prose and an actor's enriching technique.
Such moments occur often enough, at least in the first act, to give "Seascape" an emotional gravity rarely found on Broadway these days. For the most part, though, this revival is notable for being perfectly likable and, to be honest, forgettable. Even more than the presence of talking lizards, these traits make "Seascape" a novelty within the body of work of a playwright who is rarely either.
In Lincoln Center Theater's endearing revival of Edward Albee's Seascape(* * * out of four) , the curtain rises on a quiet beach set against a vast blue sky. This peaceful scene, meticulously detailed by Michael Yeargan, is interrupted by the howl of an airplane - technology intruding on nature's beauty.
Such trappings of man's progress, or lack of it, become relevant in Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which premiered on Broadway in 1974. In this new production, which opened Monday at the Booth Theatre, director Mark Lamos and his cast bear that weight lightly, sewing the sweetly rueful spirit that makes this one of Albee's most touching and gently provocative works.
George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen star as Charlie and Nancy, a couple of a certain age on a clearly wellearned holiday. Like many of Albee's couples, these two share a deep connection that all their quibbling can't conceal. Nancy feels that her spouse has lost his sense of adventure, while he counters that they've earned the right to rest. "You have to be pushed into everything," she complains.
One such push comes when Frederick Weller and Eiizabeth Marvel literally crawl onstage in the form of sea creatures Leslie and Sarah. Resplendent in costume designer Catherine Zuber's splashy green getups, the spry pair seems threatening at first. But their curiosity about human ways tickles Nancy and Charlie, and before long, the four are engaged in a lively exchange of ideas and information.
Seascape derives its humor and pathos both from the similarities that emerge between the couples and what the humans, particularly Charlie, perceive as a superiority endowed by evolution. Sarah and Leslie's menacing movements are offset by comic lines that invite parallels between their relationship and that of their more seemingly sophisticated counterparts.
Things become more tense as Charlie grows frustrated with the creatures' inability to grasp basic concepts of life as he and Nancy know it. After a confrontation, Sarah and Leslie decide to go back underwater. "You'll have to come back sooner or later," Nancy tells them.
Sternhagen captures Nancy's good-natured pluck, while Grizzard is fine as her warier but still vital spouse. And Weller and Marvel make a droll duo.
For them, perhaps, it's not easy being green eight times a week. But this Seascape is a cinch to enjoy.
In one of those stimulating New York cultural synergies that sometimes result from careful planning but, almost as often, from serendipitous accidents, Lincoln Center Theater's sparkling revival of Edward Albee's "Seascape" opens just two days after the American Museum of Natural History's "Darwin" exhibition. Creationists no doubt will sneer, but this diptych entertainment offers a kind of philosophical theme-park ride: Audiences can contemplate personal growth by tracing primordial man's journey out of the slush on Central Park West before heading to the Booth to watch interspecies understanding being fostered between brute beast and modern man.
No less a happy coincidence is the timing after last season's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" revival. Premiered on Broadway in 1974 in a production that underperformed commercially, "Seascape" was the second of three plays that earned Albee the Pulitzer Prize he had controversially been denied for "Virginia Woolf." Two decades later, few would argue "Seascape" is Albee's best play, its significance perhaps underlined a touch too diligently. But director Mark Lamos and his remarkable cast bring clarity and perceptiveness to this ideal production, creating a bracing experience.
Maintaining his focus on long-term relationships, the segue from "Virginia Woolf" to "Seascape" shifts Albee from a mood of blistering analysis to uncharacteristically mellow reflection and cautious optimism. But that transition seems entirely fluid.
Originally played by Deborah Kerr and Barry Nelson when both were in their mid-50s, the long-married couple looking at retirement from conflicting angles here are cast more appropriately with actors 20 years older. In some ways, Nancy (Frances Sternhagen) and Charlie (George Grizzard) could almost be George and Martha with the worst of their wars behind them, their affection more deeply etched by time and experience. And the "Virginia Woolf" dynamic is mirrored here, the older couple imparting, at times harshly, lessons of survival and adaptation to a younger couple. While the latter pair in "Seascape" are not humans but anthropomorphized reptiles, the play is firmly grounded not in a fantastical but in a naturalistic realm.
Michael Yeargan's gorgeous set is a small stretch of sand dunes dotted with rocks and grassy tufts, with lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski's imperceptibly shifting cloud patterns playing over a blue sky.
The scene has the delicacy of a watercolor, perhaps like the one Nancy is painting. Charlie sees their future as a similarly still picture of well-earned rest and comforting predictability, in which change and flux are to be rejected and feared. Nancy, however, refuses to endorse the "purgatory before purgatory" of his sedentary plans. Having reached the top of the family pyramid, she feels they have earned a life; she wants to travel and taste new experiences. Nancy sees wonder and possibility in the low-flying planes overhead; Charlie sees a threat.
Revolving around assessments of their marriage and the choice to engage or not engage in life, the first-act dialogue includes passages of singing, melancholy lyricism delivered by pitch-perfect instruments in Sternhagen and Grizzard, at times resembling a more literate Burns & Allen routine.
A stranger to unexpressed thought, verbose Nancy recalls contemplating divorce during Charlie's prolonged depression years earlier: "There I was, brisk and 30, still pert, learning the moles on your back instead of your chest hairs." Her pondering of what physical contact with another man might have felt like is beautiful, sensual and sad.
Taciturn Charlie is drawn out with more difficulty. But his longing for a state of innocence and simplicity that harks wistfully back to preconsciousness lays foundations for the play's surprising developments. He recounts exploring his body as a boy at the seaside and then picking up stones to enable him to sink down among the ferns and fishes for as long as his breath would hold: "One stops being an intruder, finally -- just one more object come to the bottom, or living thing, part of the undulation and the silence. It was very good."
Nancy urges Charlie to shed his clothes, dive in and rediscover his lost self, but he resists: "I'd rather remember."
The sudden arrival over the dune of two imposing green sea creatures sparks hilarious reactions of terror and disbelief in Nancy and Charlie, who assume the submission position at the end of act one.
Not only do the lizards turn out to be almost as afraid of the humans, but, on closer acquaintance, their saurian counterparts. Sarah (Elizabeth Marvel) is wide-eyed, caring and open to adventure, while Leslie (Frederick Weller) is guarded and suspicious. Conveniently, they speak English but are unfamiliar with things outside their underwater world -- clothes, breasts, aerodynamics, bigotry, Descartes. Explaining why they ventured forth, Sarah says, "We had a sense of not belonging anymore."
Refusing to believe such wonders occur, Charlie initially is convinced he and Nancy must have died. But, having played a largely reactive role until now, he is regenerated by the impulse to protect his wife and reaffirm their love in the face of life-threatening danger, by male competition and then by teaching the lizards about the world of humans.
While Nancy attempts to soothe their fears and doubts, Charlie illuminates such alien concepts as evolution, progress, mortality and, most complex of all, human emotions. His cruel method of explaining love to Sarah is by making her understand loss.
This exchange between the species is unexpectedly affecting, touching on the bewilderment, tensions and disparities that color group interactions when one faction is more dominant or educated than another. Fear of otherness and of the unknown is a key theme.
Lamos strikes a superb balance between the naturalistic register of Sternhagen and Grizzard's wise performances and the physicality of Marvel and Weller. With their slinking, darting movements up and down the dunes, their piercingly alert eyes, tense limbs and cocked heads, the presence of the lizards at first seems comically menacing. But both actors get under the reptilian skin of Catherine Zuber's striking, sexy costumes.
Marvel's delight at the newness of their experience makes her devastation at Charlie's lesson ("I want to go back!" she keeps repeating, through tears) all the more wrenching. In a role originated by Frank Langella, Weller's macho strutting, his pride in his massive tail and in having fathered 7,000 eggs, his sexualized power and defensive prickliness make his underlying vulnerability extremely touching.
When the newcomers accept Nancy and Charlie's offer to help them stay on land, Leslie responds, "All right. Begin." The line closes this vital, engaging play on a note of both hope and dangerous challenge.