I had the pleasure of attending a talk-back performance of The Lady from Dubuque, in which a wonderfully cantankerous Edward Albee took the opportunity to wonder why critics today were so much smarter than they were back in 1980, when their pans quickly put an end to its Broadway premiere. I'm not sure how serious Albee was being -- the playwright, like his characters, speaks cuttingly and with highly veiled sarcasm -- because he also mentioned the three-dimensional aspects of his characters and the lack of symbolism in his plays. (I'll agree with that for masterpieces like The Goat, in which Sylvia can be taken at face-value, or Virginia Woolf, which represents things without using cut-outs, but can one claim that with a straight face for Me, Myself, and I?) Mind you, this in a desperately bitter play in which Death, more or less, appears in the guise of a dying woman's aristocratic "mother," Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and her more down-to-earth companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James); in a play in which Sam (Michael Hayden) watches in horror as his dinner-party "friends" abandon him and his wife, Jo (Laila Robins), when the going gets tough.
There's much to appreciate about the message at the muscular heart of The Lady from Dubuque, particularly David Esbjornson's fluid staging, the ease of which only serves to cast the two visitors with more menace. (Ever seen the film Funny Games? It's a bit like that, in that the calm veneer simultaneously masks and reveals the horror.) And Signature Theatre's revival boasts a terrific ensemble: not just the deeply wounded Hayden, utterly relaxed Alexander, scene-stealing James, and mighty Robins (who one can easily imagine doing true justice to Wit), but also Thomas Jay Ryan and Catherine Curtin as an annoyingly meddlesome couple. (It's much harder to get a read on C. J. Wilson's brutish Edgar and his more-than-a-floozy girlfriend, played by Tricia Paoluccio.) But much of the show's second act revolves around blind hysterics and an unfocused script that makes the first act's fourth-wall-breaking winks seem out of place. Albee notes that he lets the characters speak; perhaps he should have stepped in as an editor, then.
Mind you, this isn't saying that discomfort has no place in the theater, particularly in a show that's dealing with death. But the stylistic shifts cut these characters off from the realism to which one can relate, and the supernatural elements -- what one might call Lost-syndrome, in which characters refuse to ask or answer the most primal of questions -- prevent this show from being a naturalist work. Instead, these clashing elements turn The Lady from Dubuque into a black hole, which absorbs all development and momentum, and while that may say something about the subject matter, it's too reductive an approach for a two-act melodrama. One clutches to the grim moments of humor, deftly delivered by James's unflappable deliveries, mainly because it's hard to find anything else, what with Hayden reduced to a quivering mess on the floor and Robins slipping in and out of a pain-filled consciousness.
Kudos, as always, to Signature Theatre, for continuing to show us the history and growth of our greatest playwrights; but as for The Lady From Dubuque, you'll just have to count me as one of those non-sophisticates to whom this play just isn't for.