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The Lady from Dubuque

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Francis James and Jane Alexander
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Is it fitting that a play about the fleeting nature and certainty of identity is confused about its own? That's the chief affliction of Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque, a revival of which Signature Theatre is presenting at the End Stage Theatre at the Signature Center. Albee has spent his career exploring notions of who we are and what we contribute, but has rarely done so more baldly than with this play, or made less of an impact in the process. This production, directed by David Esbjornson and starring Jane Alexander and Michael Hayden, is a nice one, but it doesn't reveal a play that says much that many writers—including and especially Albee—haven't said countless times before.

Anchoring events is the question "Who are you?", which is the implicit subject of the first act and the explicit subject of the second. Guests at a dinner party being held by married couple Sam (Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) entertain themselves by playing games like 20 Questions, but have even more fun flinging insults that trade on how much (or, rather, how little) they all know about each other. That Jo is dying from an unspecified but all-consuming malady is strangely irrelevant to most of them, especially when Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) insists Jo apologize to his wife, Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), for the harm she inflicted in one volley of particularly nasty invective. For them, pain is every bit as real in the head as in the body.

Sam and Jo are themselves grappling with this. He insists he wants to help her, but every touch sends her into hysterics, and he can never convince her that he's truly there for her; he seems to be, but appearances are often deceiving. And this point, too, is reinforced the next morning when Sam meets two surprise late-night arrivals: a woman named Elizabeth (Alexander) and her black companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James), both impeccably dressed in elegant gray (Elizabeth Hope Clancy designed the costumes), who are determined to get into Jo's bedroom but less inclined to define their exact roles in her life, or why they've come to visit now. This inspires Sam to inquire, repeatedly... Well, you can probably guess.

The collision and confusion of all these elements is nearly total onstage, where it even dilutes further. This happens through both additional issues only indirectly related to the concept of self, such as class (another party guest, Fred, played by C.J. Wilson, is proud to be a redneck) and emotional opportunism (in the person of Fred's "outsider" girlfriend, Carol, played by Tricia Paoluccio), and in the very presentation, which is pockmarked with Strange Interlude–like asides to the conspiratorial audience for reasons neither the writing nor the structure ever makes clear.

With so much going on, it's easy to see why this play's Broadway premiere lasted only 12 performances in 1980. It's laden with dialogue that alternately charms, stings, and questions, as Albee's best writing does, but it's unusually, unmanageably diffuse. Albee's better plays, whether the early Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the late The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia?, or Seascape (from about the same period as this one) explore one or two ideas in rigorous detail and fill in the gaps incidentally. Here, Albee leaves no breathing room whatsoever.

If this pays some dividends in the second act, when the subsidiary characters take sides with either Sam or Elizabeth and deconstruct all their existences in the process, they're minor ones. Through the ensuing conflict we witness Jo's symbolic ascension to heaven and Sam's figurative destruction at Elizabeth's hands, but their transformations lack heat; the stakes are simply too low, and the parameters of success or failure too sketchily defined. Unlike other Albee plays that thrive on this sort of ambiguity (The Play About the Baby comes to mind), the construction and the follow-through here are more theoretical than the drama demands.

Michael Hayden and Laila Robins
Photo by Joan Marcus.

That said, the production plays it all to the hilt. Esbjornson's staging graduates gently from the light-hearted to the tragic and both qualities echo on John Arnone's designer set, which marries high style and low kitsch with gleeful abandon (and is persuasively lit by David Lander). Even as the script struggles to maintain a consistent tone, Esbjornson and his company settle on one that, if at times overly casual, works as well as any could be expected to.

Hayden has some of the play's heaviest lifting and manages it well, bringing a dark joy to the early scenes and a stripped-bare sense of loss to later ones that communicates much of the agony Sam had witnessed but never before experienced. Robins matches his intensity cry for cry and finds in the hopeless Jo a woman of passions, cutting through what could easily become the character's one-note façade. Ryan and Curtin strain to locate Edgar and Lucinda's centers, but Wilson and Paoluccio do a much job at crafting compelling personalities from two people who know they don't belong in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Alexander and James attack their similar task with a graceful humor and elegance that have no easy place in this play's confines. She evinces a cooing maternity and he a grinning gregariousness that have no equivalent among the more earthly people among whom they move, but is that a good thing? It works to set them apart in an almost "extra-planar" way, as does Esbjornson's rendering of them: Their ephemeral-looking clothing and movement about the stage suggest floating rather than walking—when Alexander wraps herself in a silk shawl at one point, for example, it's as if she's withdrawing into a cloud.

What's less clear is whether this element of celestial mystery is what Albee intended, or what's been thrust on them to anchor the most disparate elements in an already messy play. Whichever is the case, it gives an otherworldly feel to The Lady from Dubuque that keeps it from being either boring or predictable. This is one definite mark of an Albee work, and part of what makes this one such a fascinating, if frustrating, failure: You never doubt that there's a meaningful, perhaps even haunting, story in here somewhere. But it's hidden among the dross of too many half-realized ideas that incite their own unintended pain as they continue to pile up.

The Lady from Dubuque
Through April 1
Signature Center / End Stage Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
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