Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
These are some of the questions at the heart of Edward Albee's Seascape, currently running in a gorgeous production at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, the first in their 2018-2019 season to be helmed by their new Artistic Director, Tony Award-winning Pam MacKinnon. And what a debut!
Though Seascape won Albee his second Pulitzer for Drama, it played only 65 performances in its first run on Broadway in 1975, and is, unfortunately, one of his lesser-performed works. Unfortunate, because it's also one of his best. Like his The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Seascape uses outrageous and fantastical elements as a way of highlighting the themes he wants to address; in this case, one of those themes is a regular of his: the difficulties in relationships, especially when partners have different ambitions or ideas for the future of their relationship.
Charlie (James Carpenter) and Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) are a couple nearing retirement, spending a little time at the shore. They have found a sheltered spot among the dunes and beach grass (on a spectacular set by David Zinn, who also created the equally spectacular costumes), where Nancy has been painting and Charlie has been napping. This, according to Charlie, is how he intends to spend the rest of his lifedoing nothing. Nancy, however, fantasizes about a life going from beach to beach, seeing all the world's beautiful shorelines. They bicker about the sorts of things most long-married couples do, but always with an undercurrent of affection and respect. They are not George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
For example, Nancy is willing to compromise her dream of traveling the world's beaches and stay right where they are, in the glowing golden sun (courtesy of lighting designer Isabella Byrd). The spot is near-perfect, save for the occasional jet that flies low overheadwith a theater-shaking roar, thanks to amazing work by sound designer Brendan Aanes. Carpenter and McLaughlin are perfectly at ease with each other, and with Albee's text. Carpenter can wring a laugh out of lines that don't seem at all funny on the page"Well, yeah," or "Get a stick." But with the slightest lift of his eyebrows, or a narrowing of his cheeksand perfect comic timinghe reveals the comic potential Albee put into his text all those years ago. McLaughlin's wide-set blue eyes, sharp, petite nose, and thin lips are put to terrific use, making us both love and fear Nancy because McLaughlin uses them to help us understand her character's desires in a very genuine way. Her physical performance is just as brilliantshe has a way of setting her hands on her hips that can be jocular or threatening, as the situation requires.
As marvelous as these two are, and as much as we enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of observing a couple in such intimate moments, Seascape doesn't really take off until the end of act one, with the appearance of Sarah and Leslie. They speak in a similarly distinctive Albee-esque manner, sniping at each other in the way married couples often do. However, Sarah and Leslie aren't human, but rather some sort of amphibious lizards who have grown uncomfortable living in the sea and are contemplating a move to dry land. Just as Carpenter can pull a laugh from a simple, "well, yeah," an exasperated "Yes, Sarah" is hysterical coming from the mouth of an amphibian. The creatures' ability to communicate the clash of cultures between earth-dwellers and sea-dwellers makes act two even funnier than the firstand there were plenty of laughs in act one.
Sarah and Leslie are played by Sarah Nina Hayon and Seann Gallagher and, even though they are encased in cumbersome costumes complete with scales and tails, their inherent humanity (amphibity?) comes pouring through. Hayon's wide-eyed reactions and quizzical tilts of the head are charming, and Gallagher's macho bluster and posturing are effectively threateningyet come across clearly as posturing to cover a sense of vulnerability.
When the two couples begin to relax around each other and to share the differences between their species, the actors are able to imbue the scene with a sense of freshness that put me in mind of the very best improv. It felt as though we were watching improvisational actors given the prompt, "You're two amphibians, just up from the sea for a look around, and you meet two humans. Go." And, as with improv, as long as we in the audience simply say "yes, and..." and accept the reality of what is fantastical, we can then sit back and enjoy the brilliance of what director MacKinnon has done in her first ACT outing.
Albee is raising gigantic issues herenot merely about relationships and communication, but also about ambition and desire. Sarah and Leslie are thinking (in a way individual members of a species cannot) about evolving, and Nancy and Charlie are contemplating their own growth or resignation, respectively. Through them, Albee is pointing at each of us in the audience, asking us to think about how we grow into better human beings. There are those who would suggest Seascape is about evolution, but I think Albee would rather have us talk about how we improve ourselves than about the origins of humanity or of intellect or consciousness. Seascape is not a play about where we came from, it's a play about where we're going.
Seascape, through February 17, 2019, at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets (ranging from $15-$110) and more information available at www.act-sf.org.