The engine that keeps a traditional drama running seems to have been removed from Edward Albee’s All Over—but, like most of this strange, moody play’s lapses and quirks, the omission seems to have been intentional. It reflects the absence of the protagonist, a great man of some sort, about whom we learn almost nothing in the course of the action. He’s just offstage, on a deathbed, his life-support system turned off fairly early in the evening (“I’ve stopped the intravenous feeding,” his Doctor reports), his vital signs being monitored and his worst pains alleviated while his assembled family waits for the moment of truth to arrive.
The family portrait that Albee gives us isn’t precisely complete either. Sporting no names beyond the abstract nouns that link them to the dying man (The Wife, The Mistress, The Son, The Daughter, The Friend), they seem to be essences rather than individuals, undergoing a formalized, almost geometrically graphed version of the dynamic all families go through on such occasions. Rarely—it sometimes seems almost grudgingly—their author will let a specific trait or piece of data slip through, somebody’s childhood memory or marital history. And within the abstraction, the characters make specific choices—this is, distinctly, a play and not a machine for generating stage fog. The Wife, cool and dignified, has been estranged from her spouse for two decades, during which he has lived with The Mistress. Nonetheless, she grudgingly befriends The Mistress, with whom she has so much more in common than with her own children; she is dismissive of The Son, a classically ineffectual great man’s offspring, and openly abominates The Daughter, who vacillates all evening long between pleas for love and petty acts of revenge, which amount to the same thing in the end.
The group that we see gathered onstage is, in the end, no more than a socially constructed happenstance. As The Daughter sardonically points out, this family’s members will all be happier going their separate ways, reuniting only on “occasions,” if at all. In this, Albee’s play turns out to have been a harbinger, notating the first cracks in the icebreak that has, in the ensuing three decades, melted away so much of America’s faith in the nuclear family. Though the characters shudder at the exploitative vulgarity of the media crews waiting buzzard-like outside, they have no hesitation about tossing what would once have been deeply hidden family secrets into the open air among themselves: Not only is The Mistress grudgingly admitted to the family circle, but the dying man’s Best Friend, who also seems to be the family lawyer, chattily admits to a brief affair with The Wife. And he does so in front of her children, who don’t seem in the least perturbed. The fastidiously genteel, slightly wooden diction may be purest Park Avenue, but the characters’ offstage behavior is strictly trailer park. The gentility itself is something of a fraud, we learn, since the family only became rich and eminent (“up by its own bootstraps”) through the dying man’s efforts. When he’s gone, meaning the minute after the final curtain, presumably the fortune and the eminence will start to go too; should his futile children, apparently childless, produce children of their own, the latter are likely to drift further downwards in class. This family’s over; everything in the play is an end-time ceremony. Even The Doctor jokes about his age—86.
The cold comforts of Albee’s grimly compassionate script would be hard for an average audience to swallow under any circumstances. They were made even colder, 31 years ago, by John Gielgud’s reverentially text-bound production, spread out hieratically across the wide stage of the Martin Beck Theatre, more commonly used for musicals than for domestic deathwatches, least of all the abstract sort. Colleen Dewhurst radiated some fire as The Mistress (when did Colleen Dewhurst ever not radiate fire?), but the experience overall was chilly, dry, and numbingly uncomfortable, with the icy austerity of Jessica Tandy, as The Wife, in full blood-freezing fettle. Though hardly cozy, the Gramercy is a considerably smaller theater, its stage packed by set designer Thomas Lynch with couches and easy chairs till the cast of Emily Mann’s new production, imported by the Roundabout from Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, almost seems cramped.
The crowding doesn’t cramp anyone’s style, though. Under Emily Mann’s directorial hand, the new production’s acting values are uneven, but its overall tone is remarkably vivid and human for such a seemingly intractable text. At least to me, All Over is the hardest of Albee’s scripts to read, a succession of wooden slats in dialogue form, varied by long speeches as heavy and smooth-surfaced as blocks of polished granite. Mann and her actors have mysteriously managed to penetrate these apparently aperture-less objects, revealing hidden springs and secret compartments of emotionality inside them. If the results still provoke an eerie dissatisfaction, that’s probably due to the play’s eerie nature: its abstractness, its lofty tone, the impassivity and lack of arc in its slowly unrolling inaction. It will probably never be a play many people love.
But at least now we know it’s a play that lives. Rosemary Harris, as The Wife, has found the solution that eluded Tandy simply by being who she is: An innately warm actress, she takes the character’s iciness as a temptation to be fended off rather than a sword to be wielded. The effect is to forge a link with both the invisible figure in the shrouded bed upstage, and with her rival, The Mistress, played by Michael Learned as a milder version of The Wife—more open in expressing her feelings, more generous in her sympathies, but not without a similar astringency. While Learned churns out the mollifying butter of human kindness, Harris’s sweetness has to do battle with her constantly outraged sense of propriety, plus her bitterness at life having constantly given her a raw deal. You never see her apologize for her scathingly dismissive remarks to her children, but you feel that, behind the iceberg, the sun is out, busily trying to make life less chilly. Tossed like a worn-out pillow between The Mistress’s easy chair and The Wife’s couch (Empire style, appropriately), Pamela Nyberg embodies The Daughter with a sense of fury that’s touchingly perplexed and pleading, even at its most vindictive. Next to these three distinctive performances, the male half of the cast seems altogether too self-effacing, while Myra Carter treats The Nurse’s tart-tongued comedy with an eye-rolling exaggeration that evokes the theater of an earlier Albee than Edward—the one who built and maintained a vaudeville circuit. But we can safely say that All Over, even when it’s funny, was never meant to knock ’em in the aisles on the two-a-day: Whatever you may ultimately feel about the play, Mann has demonstrated that it’s too rich to be called sketchy.