NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – On the very day Edward Albee died his 1996 The Play About the Baby had its Los Angeles premiere. Only a master of irony like the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning, 88-year-old Albee could have “timed” his final curtain to coincide with the lifting of the curtain on one of his few plays never to have been performed before in L.A. – especially one dealing with giving birth. As Baby’s publicist David Elzer eloquently told me when I entered The Road on Magnolia on Sept. 16, “What better way to honor Albee than by attending the debut of one of his plays on the day he died?”
This two-acter is full of Albee’s trademark acerbic wit and dark humor, consumed by his preoccupations with marriage, sexuality, parenting and that whole “meaning of life” thing – what it’s all about? Tinged by a Theatre of the Absurd sensibility, it opens with a young, sexually frisky married couple pithily named Boy (Philip Orazio) and Girl (Allison Blaize). She is very pregnant and quickly gives birth offstage (or does she)? They proceed to have some nude scenes as the scantily clad (and sometimes unclad) young marrieds romp, resuming their active sex life. (Leave the kiddies at home for this mature show, ticket buyers.)
Enter, in separate scenes, more characters with minimalist monikers – the middle-aged Man (Sam Anderson) and Woman (Taylor Gilbert). Both seem worldweary: A sense of having seen it all before emanates from Man, who relentlessly skewers offstage individuals he invokes in his tautly, tartly delivered dialogue. Beneath Man’s bluster and jibes he appears to harbor a deep, abiding disappointment in life and the way it has worked out (or hasn’t) for him. Man sees things as they are but knows it should all somehow be done another way. Similarly, Woman yearns for younger days before life’s promises faded, when she was still an alluring object of desire (or so she says, though Man claims he doesn’t buy it).
Eventually, the nubile newlyweds encounter their older counterparts and when they do, fireworks fly, as two worlds collide. Something happens to the (purported?) baby and all hell breaks loose. This is about all of the plot I’ll go into here, as this really isn’t so much a play with a storyline as it is a dramedy about the themes that have obsessed Albee. As far back as 1961 Albee lampooned the family in The American Dream. In his best known work, 1962’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the dramatist delivered a no-holds-barred scathing, scalding critique of (straight) marriage. Of course, its lead characters ponder the child they may have never had – and given that their names are George and Martha, as in Washington, Albee (who, rather tellingly, was adopted) may be commenting on America.
(Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor memorably incarnated George and Martha in Mike Nichols’ 1966 screen adaptation. In arguably her best role, Taylor scored a Best Actress Oscar, Sandy Dennis won for Best Supporting Actress, Haskell Wexler won for Best Cinematography in Black and White, and the film won another two Academy Awards besides.)
In 2000’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? Albee pushed the envelope even further, expanding the boundaries of love and sex beyond the realm of the human. As homosexuality and gay marriage increasingly gained acceptance and tolerance in 21st-century America, Albee the gadfly moved the goalposts down the field.
Who are Baby’s Man and Woman supposed to be? With their biting verbal pyrotechnics, one might assume that they are George and Martha redux, a third of a century on. Another interpretation could be that Man and Woman are meant to be Boy and Girl years later, after life has kicked the shit out of them, the passion is long gone and a lot of blood has passed under the bridge (as George quips in Woolf). But this is up to viewers to determine for themselves.
Shirtless Phillip Orazio is okay as Boy and Allison Blaize good as skimpily garbed Girl. Veteran actress Taylor Gilbert (founder and artistic director of The Road Theatre Company) excels as Woman. But as Man, Ovation Award-winner Sam Anderson, a co-artistic director of The Road Theatre Company, steals the show. With his virtuoso gestures, mannerisms and expertly, if spitefully executed eloquence, Anderson has an arresting presence as he paints vivid word pictures out of Albee’s deathless dialogue. This is truly topnotch acting that we are privileged to witness firsthand, thanks to the uniqueness of L.A.’s intimate theatre scene. I rank his deft delivery of Albee’s dialogue alongside Richard Burton’s.
Not to take anything away from the sheer magnitude of Anderson’s talent, his performance is at least in part due to Andre Barron’s inspired, insightful direction. Post-show, in casual conversation with the screenwriter Jacob Kamhis, Barron explained how he fleshed out the rather spare stage found – or not found – in the script. Albee personally gave his approval to this L.A. premiere production even as he closed at his home in Montauk, N.Y. The portraits hanging on the stage are, Barron pointed out, photos of Albee’s adoptive parents (pretty clever!). Of course, scenic designer Sarah B. Brown skillfully contributed to helping Barron concretize Albee’s vision (Barron’s addition of the bar is a droll homage to George and Martha, infamous for their boozing). Lily Bartenstein’s lighting and projection design does nothing less than conjure up the cosmos – and our human place in it.
David Elzer is quite right: The best way to pay homage to Albee is by seeing his plays. Serious theatergoers owe it to themselves to literally hit The Road at The Road on Magnolia to see Baby and experience a stellar production of one of our peerless bard’s final plays.
Aloha oe – farewell to thee – Edward Albee, truly one of the greats.
The Road Theatre Company presents The Play About the Baby on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm at The Road on Magnolia in The NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood CA 91602 through Nov. 5. For more info: www.roadtheatre.org or (818) 761-8838.
Photo: left to right, Philip Orazio, Allison Blaize, Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson / Michele Young.