Edward Albee is probably the most famous living playwright in the United States today. I say "probably" because Sam Shepard and David Mamet may actually come more quickly to mind, or even Neil Simon (but I don't count him for reasons I won't bother to explain). What makes Albee interesting to contemplate is just how high he was in everyone's esteem for the first decade of his career, and then how low for a couple of decades, and how more recently, post-Three Tall Women (1991), he has returned as a kind of off-stage gray eminence, highly respected but hardly loved.
One cannot go see an Albee production without the mixed feelings his large and rather diverse oeuvre provokes. My favorite works are the early ones: the brilliant Zoo Story, the hilarious The American Dream, the devastating Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- theatrical masterworks without question. But the pure, exciting energy and rage of these early works has never returned, although Albee's work has been theatrically effective in a variety of ways since then, as in A Delicate Balance and The Play About the Baby, to name a couple. Some would call Three Tall Women brilliant; for me, it was too derivative of Beckett.
So what to make of Albee's latest New York production? (And one must note that he is not produced a whole lot in New York City, given his fame and the fact that he has written and produced over two dozen plays.) The current Lincoln Center production of his 1974 play Seascape (which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is quite enchanting, more than I had expected, having never seen this play staged. I had always found the concept of a couple of giant lizards who talked to be pretty ridiculous (despite my love of theatre of the absurd). On the page, it hadn't worked for me. But on the stage it was fantastic and lovely, and strangely moving. In fact, the lizards are easily the best part of this production. Before they enter the scene, climbing over the top of sand dunes, the aging, upper-middle-class couple on stage engages in rather tedious discourse about life and taking risks.
The play opens with Nancy and Charlie, that older couple (played by Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard), chatting on the beach among the dunes. She is clearly the more active one, charging down upon his cozy blanket from her perch higher up, making demands, trying to arouse him. She is all enthusiasm: "I love it here." In fact, she wants to travel the beaches of the world now that they are retired with grown children. But Charlie resists, repeating the word "no," and explaining, "I don't want to travel from beach to beach . . . . I'm happy doing nothing," a concept that appalls his wife. He is the archetypal old man, set in his ways, unambitious, declaring, "Well, we've earned a little rest."
As played by George Grizzard, Charlie is boyish and foolish, a kid-like aging preppie, with potbelly and silly grin. Sternhagen's Nancy is energetic, slender, eager for new adventures. She tells a story of earlier in their marriage, when she was in her thirties and he went into a seven-month depression, and how she dreamed of escape from their safe but dull matrimony. It is all rather banal. She does most the talking. It seems for a while like a bourgeois version of Beckett's Happy Days, with the loquacious woman and the insignificant mate, playing together on a large sand pile, but without the bite of Beckett.
Then suddenly a splendid green creature crawls over the top of the dunes: huge, startling. The audience gasps. Then another, this one clearly feminine, crawls into view. With painted faces and large riveting eyes, the lizard-like creatures stare at the wrangling humans. This is a marvelously theatrical moment of shock -- creatures from very different worlds meeting by surprise. Charlie immediately wants to get a big stick. His instinctive response is that of the primitive male, fight or flight.
What happens once the giant gorgeous lizards arrive in this production -- and they are amazingly beautiful, like sinuous works of art, delicious sand-crawling dancers -- is that the whole theatrical event leaps into another realm: something between dream and magic. The pettiness of the humans, with their mildly bickering complaints, persists for a while, and the first act ends with them in stiffly assumed postures of frightened submission. But as the second act gets going and their inter-species communication commences, the play becomes a slow dance of acquaintance, both humorous and moving. Of course Nancy is the one who quickly finds the creatures "beautiful," while Charlie insists they are "terrifying."
What is most engaging is actually the response of the lizards, named Sarah (played delightfully by Elizabeth Marvell) and Leslie (Frederick Weller embodying the beast with comic macho), to this encounter with humans. They ask questions, tell their own stories, cavort, show off, and finally admit that they've crawled up out of the ocean because they weren't "comfortable" there any more.
This brings us to Albee's theme, a kind of hymn to the wonders of evolution: the journey from one life form to another, the rising from the "primordial soup" up onto land, the movement towards greater and greater consciousness. Leslie is rather doubtful about the story Charlie tells to explain "evolution to a couple of lizards." Leslie might be more of a believer in intelligent design. Who knows? We never find out who or what Leslie's deity is, but he does declare his sense that "It's rather dangerous up here." The play ends a tad sentimentally with Nancy and Charlie convincing Sarah and Leslie not to return to the ocean, as the sky is slowly darkening, but rather to stay and be helped to evolve by their human friends.
In fact, at the time he wrote Seascape back in the early '70s, Albee had been reading books on anthropology and sociology by Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz; he had grown interested in animals, evolution, and the "collective unconscious." Living in a large house in Montauk facing the ocean, Albee noted, "There are still prehistoric fish at the bottom of the ocean. It's conceivable that they could evolve. . . . Things evolve or devolve. Everything is always undergoing mutation in order to survive." [Mel Gussow, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. Simon and Schuster: 1999, p. 289.]
So the metaphor of the lizards suggests our own human desire to go on evolving, not to close down (as Charlie had), but to discover new sources of wonder, new experiences, even at the risk of some danger. What this play poetically proclaims is that evolution is in itself an amazing process, beautiful and profound, and one that apparently requires no deity, or at least not the sort that walks in the garden and gets angry and punitive. - Victoria Sullivan
Seascape is at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY, through January 8, 2006. Mr. Albee will converse with the public on December 7, 6:30-7:15 PM, at a free event in the Beaumont Theater lobby.
Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.