In his shapeless adaptation of "Lolita," which opened last night at the Atkinson, Edward Albee has reduced Nabokov's pulsatingly brilliant novel to a coarse, loveless, sexless and lifeless farce. It is almost as if he had set out to destroy the work, but I think instead he foundered as he became less and less able to contain it.
It has been reported that the late Nabokov's heirs have been distressed by Albee's inclusion of some foul language in his "updating" of the story (the novelist was punctilious in his avoidance of obscenities), but they have greater reason to be disturbed by the cheapening of the work as a whole, and particularly by the loss of its strange, heightened, Baudelairean poetic atmosphere.
Albee, in condensing a long and richly-detailed work, has resorted to a device I can only refer to as a comedy duo "in one," expanding at intervals to offer specific scenes, again often the invention of Albee in detail as well as language. Ian Richardson, playing a suave and amused Certain Gentleman (Nabokov, I regret to say), brings on Donald Sutherland, the Humbert Humbert, and when the two, like a truly displaced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, aren't chatting about events past and future, Humbert is complaining about his creator's manipulation about him. At such moments, "Lolita" seems uncomfortably like a high-school morality play.
Shuttled back and forth in this manner, Humbert, with all his pitifully misplaced ardor, unquenchable lust and maniacal obsession, becomes an impossible role to play. Try as the rangy, accomplished Sutherland may, his rapturous outbursts are no more convincing than is his foreplay with the 12-year-old nymphet Lolita, a sketchily presented part played by the slender 25-year-old Blanche Baker with an unavailing outward display of wantonness, and no inner resources.
Only toward the finish, when the bereft Humbert, his nemesis Quilty slain, sits on the forestage with remembered yearning and wonderment clinging to him as that Certain Gentleman recites the closing lines of the poem the book's Humbert composed in a Quebec sanitorium ("And I shall be dumped where the weed decays/And the rest is rust and stardust"), does Sutherland move us, does the script allow him to do so.
There are certain minor things I have long questioned about the novel, such as its lumping together of girls between the ages of nine and 14, even less applicable today than 25 years ago. But they are trivial beside the magic of the whole, consistently destroyed here. To cite just one example of the play's tone: the funeral music for Lolita's mother Charlotte, whom Humbert wed and who is gross both in size and demeanor as performed by Shirley Stoler, dies (by a comic fall down a flight of stairs rather than a panicky dash into the street to be ground beneath the wheels of a passing car), is "I'll See You Again," and Humbert must push the suddenly risen and fulminating corpse back into its half-open coffin and shut the lid for a first-act curtain.
So many details have been changed completely, or else altered, that one can't begin to list them. Portions of narrative recast as dialogue now become swollen with innuendo, punning and other examples of double-entendre, and the acting with smirks, arch side glances and ribald laughs echoed by the preview audience.
Sutherland, an interesting actor, and Richardson, a very fine one, are lost. Only Clive Revill survives, in a broad comic way, as the chameleon-like Quilty, the character with whom director Frank Dunlop seems to feel most at home. The part of Charlotte's black maid has been enlarged to allow Marcella Lowery a few hip and sassy moments. There are several other bit roles and walk-ons. Dunlop, a proven fine hand at farce, has staged "Lolita" faithfully in his, and in this case, Albee's fashion. Aside from rolled-on scenic units, William Ritman's setting consists of tall, wide, swiveling panels with, here and there, "LOLITA," or parts of the name, spelled out in big block capitals.
But what a shocking piece of disfigurement. And what a monstrous bore.
So Lolita has finally, officially opened. It happened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, after all those oft-prolonged previews that threatened to stretch to eternity, and all those rumored rewrites that might have filled a substantial shelf of the Library of Congress. Edward Albee's play had finally made it to the light of night, trailing clouds of ill-omen.
It is Albee's play not Vladimir Nabokov's novel - this is important to realize. It is described as being "adapted" from the novel, but the adaptation has been so free, that Nabokov demands no more credit or blame than that revered source-bearer Cinthio deserves equal billing with Shakespeare in the writing of Othello.
However, Albee's central theme - the play is hardly in gear before we are told "love is the subject here" - is identical with Nabokov's and, naturally, the story is much the same. There are essential difference - all of them damaging to Albee.
The comparison with the way Albee in his play has tackled the theme and the way Nabokov in his novel treated the same material is, in one sense, irrelevant. Yet it is those differences of approach, changes of tone and nuance, that enabled Nabokov to compose a masterpiece, and leaves Albee with merely a play of only passing interest.
The changes Albee has wrought are not simply minor changes of detail - although these abound, but also, perhaps without the playwright quite realizing it, a difference of concept. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is a nympholeptic for whom a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, triggers an ineffable memory of pre-adolescent love that leads to degradation, madness and murder.
Albee's H.H. is an acknowledged pedophile who has successfully chased prepubescent girls all over Europe. The idea is coarsened; Nabokov's purpose is lost. Take almost any episode - say the first meeting between H.H. and Lolita's mother, Charlotte Haze. With Nabokov the woman is of some dignity. In Albee, the hero has scarcely set foot in the house before this now gross caricature of womanhood is clumsily propositioning him.
So what do we have left? A picaresque play, that at times sounds regrettably like a film script abandoned by Stanley Kubrick, about a dirty old man who finally finds the love of his squalid, but at least unrepentent, life, and is rejected by her after taking her on the scenic route through the great motels of America. It is a play - but it is neither classy nor moving.
Albee, particularly in the first and far superior of the two acts, is often amusing, and not all the jokes are lifted from Nabokov. There is also his bright idea of introducing, as commentator, some semblance of Nabokov himself, in the guise of a character called "A Certain Gentleman." This is a Nabokov-like ruse, as can be evidenced by the novelist's own cod introduction to Lolita.
But the poetry, the pain and the passion - alliteration seems fair for Humbert Humbert - have been lost in the glare of the footlights and the crudity of this transference of ideas.
The director Frank Dunlop has obviously done his best to impose style and order on a script needing large doses of both. He and his actors make the most of Albee's conceit of the "Certain Gentleman," and even accomplish those vaudeville-like addresses to the audience that Albee here employs for light relief and human contact.
The scene designer William Ritman was faced with the task of designing a play that in practical terms should have been a film and did creditably in the circumstances. And the actors also did well in their attempts to steer between the play and the novel and did not get shipwrecked in their attempt.
Both Clive Revill, as the mysterious nemesis figure of Claire Quilty, and Shirley Stoler as the pliant and lonely widow Charlotte Haze, were much hampered by the playwright's simplistic and clownish view of their roles. While they should provide irony, here they were simply sent out to garner laughs, which they did adequately enough.
Blanche Baker as the nymphet Lolita herself, seemed a little old for the role, and while she was knowing and lascivious enough, radiant innocence eluded her.
The two finest performances came from Ian Richardson as Albee's old master of ceremonies and Donald Sutherland as Humbert Humbert. Richardson was suave, amusing and understandably detached. The English actor played the role exquisitely.
The surprise was Sutherland - for since when has Richardson not been brilliant? - and his rakishly seedy H.H., with his leers and braying laughs, his self-defensive bravado and his air of inexplicable desperation in moments of calm, proved quite perfect. When he opened with his paen to Lolita: "Light of my life, fire of my loins," he even convinced us, until Albee let that light and fire go out like an untended candle.
So it is shocking, this new Lolita? Well, in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now...no, not shocking except to the easily shocked. Vulgar, is more what I would call it, vulgar and misbegotten.
After weeks of delays, Edward Albee's ''Lolita'' finally opened at the Brooks Atkinson last night, and all one can do is wonder why it did. This show is the kind of embarrassment that audiences do not quickly forget or forgive. It's not just that ''Lolita'' is incompetent or boring or that it lays waste to a masterpiece of modern literature: those are pardonable sins that have been known to occur in Broadway theaters. What sets ''Lolita'' apart from ordinary failures is its abject mean-spiritedness. For all this play's babbling about love, it is rank with indiscriminate - and decidely unearned - hate.
''Lolita'' bills itself as an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel about Humbert Humbert, a professorial European emigre whose sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl sends him criss-crossing America in a frenzy of passion that leads to madness and murder. The book is a funny and finally tragic evocation of a man's desire to possess his irretrievable past, of the modern American landscape, of the beauties and limits of the English language. Last and least, it is a book about sex: the lovers' carnal adventures are described with sensitivity and only then in the early stages of Humbert's parodistically confessional memoir.
Mr. Albee's ''Lolita'' is something else. Aside from odd verbatim lines (usually ripped out of context), all that remains of Nabokov's novel at the Atkinson is its most accessible feature, its mildly salacious plot. And even that is so ineptly told - usually by means of flat-out narration or announcements - that it often seems to be taking place offstage. (By Act II, the action is so remote and truncated it seems phoned in from another solar system.) There are vague attempts to pay lip service to the deeper, passionate concerns of the novel - the play's hollowed-out Humbert periodically wails earnestly about his mad love and invites our pity - but the evening is mainly a slapdash compilation of jokes. The jokes are Mr. Albee's, not Nabokov's, and they are a perfect amalgam of the witless and the tasteless.
The only benign gags, perhaps, are the playwright's sadly sophomoric attempts to match Nabokov's intricate word games and ironic literary conceits. Instead of the book's dense, Joycean poetic fabric, we get idle alliterative doodles typified by Humbert's non sequitur, ''Better bugs in the basement than buggery in the bedroom.'' Literature is represented by a character named ''a certain gentleman'' (Ian Richardson) who shadows Humbert (Donald Sutherland) throughout the evening and is apparently meant to be a stand-in for Nabokov. This well-dressed fellow - who also resembles the narrator of Mr. Albee's grim adaptation of ''The Ballad of the Sad Cafe'' - tries desperately to give the evening high-falutin' airs. When he refers, at one typical point, to a house of ''double perfumes and cracked mirror images,'' he allows Mr. Albee to reduce a major imagistic motif of the novel to a single, cryptic, pretentious line.
When it comes to sex, Mr. Albee reveals a sensibility that would be right at home on network television. This ''Lolita'' isn't more explicit than Nabokov's (despite the addition of four-letter words); it's just more smirky. Each time Humbert and Lolita (Blanche Baker) try to engage in a sex act, they are interrupted either by a supposedly farcical intruder or by that certain gentleman, who brings down a curtain and coyly asks us to invoke our imaginations. The most famous sexual incident of the book - in which Humbert has an orgasm while Lolita sits innocently on his robed lap - is painful to witness. Mr. Sutherland gasps and pants and bobs like a fleabag comic cavorting at a stag dinner.
If there's a point to the would-be sex scenes in Mr. Albee's ''Lolita,'' it is an unpleasant one: The writer is not out to titillate, but to render the erotic impulse ridiculous. The ridicule doesn't stop there. Charlotte Haze (Shirley Stoler), Lolita's vulgar yet handsome mother in the book, has been transformed into ''sort of a pig.'' She's a screechy circus freak in a loud muu-muu - a caricature of female sexuality that sends a shudder of revulsion through the theater. Worse still, Mr. Albee has given the mother a black maid who has no dramatic function beyond recalling the heyday of ''Amos 'n Andy.'' We also get a wisecrack in which Humbert accuses Charlotte of being an ''anti-Semite (who) differentiates between Jews and kikes.'' The line is meaningless except as an attempt to get a sleazy laugh on the word ''kikes.''
Frank Dunlop has directed these proceedings with a slam-bang crudeness that one associates with long-running London sex-farces. He isn't helped much by the hideous and awkward set, designed by the usually smart William Ritman, that forces the actors to stumble about slanted panels and odd heaps of furniture. Nor is any attempt made to duplicate Nabokov's witty, abstracted backdrop of crazy-quilt American motels and suburban communities. Even Alan Jay Lerner's 1971 musical comedy version of ''Lolita,'' which folded in Boston on its way to Broadway, got the scenery right.
The cast must fend for itself. As the narrator, Mr. Richardson is, as always, ineffably urbane even when reciting gibberish. In the title role, here a minor figure, the 24-year-old Miss Baker does a clever job of impersonating the downy nymphet; she deserves a more substantial stage vehicle soon. The others - who also include Clive Revill imitating Peter Sellers's movie characterization of Clare Quilty - fare badly. One feels especially sorry for Mr. Sutherland, a very fine actor who here is asked to yuk at his own bad jokes, to affect prissy hand gestures and to flounce about like a broken puppet. It's as if he's parodying one of his rare bad screen performances - his other pedophile, in Bernardo Bertolucci's ''1900.''
But Mr. Sutherland and company will survive this carnival. And so, needless to say, will Vladimir Nabokov's novel. About Mr. Albee, it's hard to be so sanguine. This playwright, who promised and delivered great things two decades ago, has in recent years abandoned his gifts. Now he's gone further: in ''Lolita,'' Mr. Albee has forsaken the humane impulse that is the minimal, rock-bottom essential of art.