Seascapeby Edward Albee. Directed by Mark Lamos. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound by Aural Fixation. Movement Coordinator Rick Sordelet. Cast in alphabetical order: George Grizzard, Elizabeth Marvel, Frances Sternhagen, Frederick Weller.
Is any playwright more adept at shocking than Edward Albee? What he knows that few others seem to is that the unexpected can only truly stun when you're waiting for it. So when the most surprising event he's ever devised occurs about halfway through the first act of Seascape, even if you sense its approach - which, on some level, you must - it still leaves you gasping, and gasping for air.
That moment, for the uninitiated, is a slimy green lizard head appearing atop a high sand dune on an otherwise placid, sun-bleached beach. Materializing as if from the depths of hell - or, more accurately, the depths of the ocean just beyond our field of vision - the sight is at once frightening and comic, sobering and welcome. And, in the enveloping new Lincoln Center Theater revival at the Booth, it's also strangely moving.
This is no small achievement. Seascape, like Albee's best works, plays most of its emotional cards strictly close to the vest. In Albee's plays, as in life and the relationships that constitute them, feelings of any worthwhile kind are only elucidated through hard, painful work and aren't freely unlocked. Albee's breakthrough Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for example, surreptitiously develops its dramatic uppercuts over the course of three hours, saving its most unforgiving blows for its climactic final scenes.
In theory, Seascape should work the same way: Only slowly do you become intimately involved in the story of the longtime married couple Nancy and Charlie, gradually becoming attuned to the sepia-toned sincerity and ruminative romantic underpinnings of their relationship. When two lizards slither up from the sea to investigate our world, you fear for all four and their futures, but you begin to understand that the influence of humanity stretches beyond any given extended family; humankind suddenly becomes a much closer-knit clan.
This all comes through in this new production, which has been directed with supple care by Mark Lamos. But what's also silently, solemnly unavoidable - and what that first glimpse of living green heralds - is the impending specter of mortality that gives the utterances of every character, human and reptile alike, an overwhelming urgency. Our time on Earth is limited, every character says, screams, or cries in his own way - best to make the most of however long we have.
For Nancy (Frances Sternhagen), that means embracing as much of everything as possible. "Think of all the beaches we could see," she says with a wistful longing that bespeaks decades of frustration at opportunities missed and avenues unexplored. Charlie (George Grizzard), though, wants only to relax and unwind as he approaches the end of his own journey. "I'm happy doing nothing," he claims. "There's comfort in setting in."
As for the two lizards, Leslie and Sarah (Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel), their future presently looks much like their past: procreation. They've produced thousands of offspring - Nancy and Charlie only three, not counting grandchildren - but what difference have they made? Their values and goals aren't comparable; they don't comprehend emotions, they understand only the primal quake of fear, the untenable longing for surviving just one more day.
The contrast between the two philosophies is underscored by the "glaciers and the crags" - or the lack thereof - of the performers. Grizzard and Sternhagen are both in their mid-70s, and bring with them the gravity of two people facing an unavoidably immediate concern. (Both actors, it should be mentioned, are youthful and energetic enough onstage to belie their true ages, but no matter.) Weller and Marvel, practically unrecognizable in Catherine Zuber's elaborately sinewy costumes, read as perhaps mid-20s in human terms, but as adult lizards who've already experienced all their limited existence can offer.
The back-and-forth between the four, which consumes the entire second act, encapsulates discussions of technology and feelings, evolution and responsibility, and becomes as much a generational debate as an interspecies one. Death hovers over them all - it's not just a philosophical concern this time - and it's as much our reaction to that fact as theirs that allows the play to wield its considerable power in examining time lost and time yet remaining.
If Lamos occasionally gets tangled in the pointed pauses and spaces between the words that give the play a comic-opera feel, he keeps it spinning steadily throughout, allowing each revelation and wry quip to unfold naturally. Michael Yeargan's embracing yet desolate beach set, Peter Kaczorowski's increasingly autumnal lighting, and Aural Fixation's rumbling sound expertly complete the onstage world.
Grizzard and Sternhagen help adroitly populate that world, not just with their own monumental presences but with the ghosts of the family and memories that influence and haunt every moment's choices. Grizzard's addled Charlie is rife with exhaustion, and his quavering voice and reluctant movements beautifully depict a man searching for the shred of hope that will give him a reason to go on. Sternhagen presents a firmer, funnier Nancy, as set in her exploratory ways as Charlie is in resigned ones; her monologue about a long-ago infidelity - contemplated, never consummated - is especially warm, wise, and knowing. But nothing in either performance rings false.
The same isn't true of Weller; his staid manner and affected smarminess don't make him a proper match for the smooth, unprepossessing confidence of Marvel, who needs no cajoling to present Sarah, inside and out, with no hint of artifice. Weller might as well be back in Glengarry Glen Ross, though he has more scales now than he did then (another critical flaw in his work here).
But it's Albee who's most responsible for the warm flesh and pulsing blood that drive this production, which reveals this his clearest, most insightful examination of human bonding, lizards notwithstanding. Virginia Woolf, though covering similar territory, is a more titanic achievement; it revels in its size and weight in the carefree way that only theatrical epics can, unearthing everything and missing nothing, whether laughs, tears, or spiritual upheaval.
Seascape doesn't need such fireworks to achieve identical ends. It's content in discovering the enormous ideas that lurk within the smallest words and the most cast-off inklings. "Progress is a set of assumptions," Charlie opines at one point; "Death is a release if you've lived all right," he says at another; "Mutate or perish," he insists, is the ultimate lesson of existence.
"It's rather dangerous up here," comes one reptilian observation, with "Everywhere" the shatteringly human reply. That's certainly correct - life and love can be equally calamitous and thrilling. And, as this Seascape - similarly worthy of both adjectives - reminds us, neither should ever be taken for granted.