Past Imagining

A young couple has a baby. Then one day an older man and woman appear in their lives, and suddenly there's no baby. A man paints a picture of a girl whose face he remembers. Then he finds out that she lived—and he drew a similar picture of her—a century earlier. Theater's the three-dimensional medium, the one that's all about living flesh-and-blood figures—and what's more fun, for artists or audiences, than denying the essence of the medium? "Last night I saw upon the stair/A little man who wasn't there./He wasn't there again today./How I wish he'd go away." The hero of Time and Again does go away, into the past, partly for love's sake and partly to make sure the little man who sent him there never gets born. Albee's baby goes away, too: The stage convention by which a wadded-up blanket represents a baby becomes the setup for a sort of conjuring trick, and the young couple concedes, grudgingly, that it has no baby—except that they can still hear it crying, though we can't, as the lights fade.

Albee's vanishing trick is a philosophy professor's unusually graphic lecture on the difference between what we have and what we imagine. Is the baby real because the young couple says so, or unreal because the older couple says not? We do hear it crying once or twice, but offstage sounds, like wadded-up blankets, are dubious evidence in the theater. Challenged, Albee's Boy and Girl don't seem to know the gender of their baby; perhaps they don't know themselves, or each other, as well as they might, though they romp around in the nude often enough to have a thorough acquaintance with each other's physical surface. If this distracts from Albee's philosophic lucubrations, that's OK: All experienced teachers use jokes and digressions to lighten the burden of their lessons.

Often enough, the digressions turn out to be the point. Albee's play is, in essence, one long sleight-of-hand trick, with the vanishing act for a capper; every scene is a new digression. It's exactly like "real" life, where we don't spend our time thinking about the meaning of being; we just are. Albee's Boy and Girl have a pretty story about how they met (as she awoke from a coma in a hospital room), and another about how their baby was born. But he seems fixated on a different story, about some tough kids who broke his arm when he was a schoolboy, and may have done more than that; she shows unexpected dubiety about his inclination toward sexual experiment. It's not so much that there's more to them as that there's other—which would keep them apart if the baby weren't there to cement their relationship. Put that way, Albee's arcane setup suddenly seems not only understandable but normal, a way of rendering in drama what happens every day offstage.

Seldes and Burtka play Albee: baby talk.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Seldes and Burtka play Albee: baby talk.

Details

The Play About the Baby
By Edward Albee
Century Center
111 East 15th Street 212-239-6200

Time and Again
By Jack Viertel and James Hart,
music and lyrics by Walter Edgar Kennon,
based on the book by Jack Finney
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street 212-581-1212

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Albee's older couple, called Man and Woman, have stories to tell, too, as if to convey humbly that they're not just vindictive symbols of metaphysical Truth. She gets a long, comically overwrought description of her youthful love affair with a famous painter, which sounds cribbed from somebody's memoir of Augustus John. The Man's anecdotes, in contrast, tend toward vaudeville-routine nonsense, like the one about his children being black, white, and green ("Half green?" "Pale green"). One can't be sure, though: His most pungent narrative, about forgetting the name of a female party guest who turns out to be his mother, comes directly from the author's own biography. Obviously certain private levers are being pulled here—there may be another one in the constant spoonerizing of Burns's famous line as "Oh, what a wangled teb we weave"—but Albee doesn't invite us to speculate on these murkier matters. He just wants us to know that life is confusing, truth is painful, and illusion is what we cling to. Who's weaving that tangled web anyway, and practicing to deceive: the young couple, the older couple, or their creator? If the play seems a mere tidbit of merchandise, packed in an extra-large box, be careful: You might be throwing out a vital piece of goods with the those pesky styrofoam beads. The baby, as it were, with the bathwater.

Not that you'd want to throw out all the packaging, though Albee's repetitions begin to sound like padding after a while. Man (Brian Murray) is the evening's MC and chief manipulator, and Murray has a sublimely vaudevillean good time—now easygoing, now stepping the pressure up—as he slides along the twisty ski trails of sentences that Albee's laid out for him. Ever amiable, Murray never works himself to a frazzle in that audience-wearying way some performers have. What would be the use? Albee's seen to it that every spin down the slopes ends with his crashing into a rock—in the sculpturally splendid form of the woman playing opposite him.

"Ignore her," Murray snarls at us at one point. But nobody, anywhere, ever, ignored Marian Seldes, or ever will. It would be easier to ignore the "Ode to Joy," or the George Washington Bridge, or sunset over the Sangre de Cristos. Woman, which is how the program identifies Seldes, is both romantically self-dramatizing and the evening's principal clown. Common enough in naturalistic comedies, this blend isn't so easy to bring off in a play where all the usual signposts have been removed. Seldes can do it. Taller in artistic stature than anything onstage, including the play, she has the essential quality of great art: no shame. At the evening's digressive apex, the script obliges her to decide, suddenly, that she must sign for the hearing-impaired while Murray divagates on the life of Jesus. People who tell you they could follow, through the resultant laughter, more than five consecutive words of Murray's speech must be lying; the last time I heard a whole theater roar this way, Bert Lahr was shinnying up the proscenium arch.

David Esbjornson directed, intelligently, by which I mean that Seldes and Murray are always in command yet never in excess. The play's sense, its inspired nonsense, and its uninspired padding are all allowed to come through uninjured. Kathleen Early and David Burtka, as Girl and Boy, make these emptily corporeal figures touching as well as decorative. Kenneth Posner's sympathetic lighting enhances both the performances and John Arnone's dryly witty set, a sort of Whitney Biennial of magnified baby supplies, dominated sardonically by a giant pacifier—exactly what the play isn't.


Time and Again, in contrast, couldn't be more pacific. The authors have tried very hard to preserve Jack Finney's story, have put as much pleasantness as they could into its retelling, and in doing so have missed the point: The antique engravings scattered through Finney's novel are both the book's fun and its seals of authenticity, the source of the playful charm that keeps enlarging its cult of devoted readers. The stage has no equivalents for these touchstones of the tangible New York past that Finney's hero struggles to reshape. Or if it has, the adaptors haven't found them. Anybody can come out on stage and announce that he's traveling through time; making us believe it is another matter. The problem's intensified by the show's habit of sticking within our musical theater's all too standardized limits, where 1882 equals ragtime, which wasn't the case, really, among even tenuously respectable white New Yorkers. Stuck with a less than convincing set of illusions and a less than historical vocabulary in which to express them, the writers do their best, but the result is rarely more than an honorable defeat. Walter Edgar Kennon used to bill himself as Skip Kennon, and at times his music still skips blithely along, especially in a cheerful chunk of three-part counterpoint, but too often it merely walter-edgars its placid way through the script, which is wordy without verbal fun and data-laden without telling details.

With such shaky stuff, what's a director to do? Susan H. Schulman seems to have chiefly concentrated on helping her actors find whatever life they can in the material, while moving it along at a steady clip. In those departments, she gets good results: Lewis Cleale makes an appealingly hangdog hero, Laura Benanti turns his 1882 flame into a figure of complex pathos, and Julia Murney gets the sharp edge of her modern-day rival without the sharp vocal edges that have made me resist her previous performances. Since the cast also includes Patricia Kilgarriff, Lauren Ward, Melissa Rain Anderson, David McCallum, and Joseph Kolinski (who gets the best song), Time and Again clearly ought to blaze much brighter. Even while pressing the pace, Schulman isn't afraid to pause for contemplation, but in compressing the novel's magical lost world, the writers have left her almost nothing to contemplate. With appropriate if unconscious irony, Time and Again is the only musical I can think of with a title number that gets the show's title wrong, constantly singing, "Time and time again," as if its intention were to drag us down instead of charging us up.

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