Theater archives

Theatrical Lizardry


Maybe Charlie and Nancy are dead. At least, Charlie thinks so. He blames it on the liver-paste sandwiches from their picnic. Nancy, ever feisty, restless, and optimistic, is quite sure they’re alive, but that doesn’t prove she’s right. Death—or perhaps a dream in a deathlike delirium—might be the only reasonable way to explain how Charlie and Nancy, who’ve been sitting peacefully on a deserted beach, chatting about possible retirement options, have suddenly found themselves locked in an intense debate about the value of life, with a couple of human-size lizards, just evolved enough to have climbed up out of their aquatic home to explore the land. Maybe they, too, are in search of a suitable retirement home, and want ours.

This is the story, insofar as there is one, of Edward Albee’s puckishly tragic divertissement Seascape, first seen on Broadway in 1975, directed by the author, and now revived by Lincoln Center Theater in a much livelier production staged by Mark Lamos. It would probably be unwise to regard Seascape as a major play, except that this darkly cheery fantasy keeps touching on major themes. Like the sea itself, Seascape is unstable, shifting its tone and altering its argument the way the tides constantly alter the shoreline. The best way to enjoy it—something that’s very easy to do, given the four sublime performers who make up Lamos’s cast—is probably just to let it wash over you.

Part of what gives Lamos’s production its increased liveliness, paradoxically, is that the generation gap between humans and lizards has been widened: Barry Nelson and Deborah Kerr, when they played Charlie and Nancy in the original, were in their mid-fifties; George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen, who play the roles now, are in their mid-seventies. They’re also actors who know how to anchor themselves more strongly, even on this play’s unsteady dunes. Nelson, a solid actor with great easygoing charm, excelled in light comedy; a deep contemplation of death, infinity, and the mysteries of creation wasn’t exactly the most reachable tool in his workbag. Kerr, appearing on Broadway for the second and last time, seemed stilted and cautious, a glamorous movie figure anxious to establish her serious credentials. Grizzard and Sternhagen, whose long careers have largely been devoted to the stage, are skilled hands who’ve readily alternated classics with light commercial entertainments and knotty contemporary plays for years. They know how to make even the most difficult moments seem natural, how to ground and build the emotions, how to give even the trickiest of Albee’s verbal games an easy musicality of speech without artifice. When Grizzard’s Charlie asserts that they must be dead, it’s doubly funny and startling because they both seem so alive up there, artists who welcome you into the play’s world as if it were a home they’d lived in for decades.

My enthusiasm for Grizzard and Sternhagen doesn’t imply any reservation about their lizard colleagues, Elizabeth Marvel and Frederick Weller. It’s just that lizards, as compared to humans, have so much more fun onstage. Lizards get to engage in all kinds of non-human behavior; they can hiss and writhe, leap and make menacing gestures, shake their flipper-like hands and swivel their heads like ostriches. And who wouldn’t want to slither onstage wearing a way-cool lizard costume by Catherine Zuber? (I think the credit “Lizards by Zuber” should appear on every theater program.) Not that Fred Voelpel’s costumes for the original lizards were bad, or that there was anything wrong with the way Frank Langella and Maureen Anderman played the roles. My point is that the amount of theatrical fun to be gotten out of a pair of human-size lizards is a constant. Put a man and a woman in lizard suits and an audience is happy.

It helps, of course, if you can give the lizards and their human coevals something interesting to say. That’s where Albee, erratically but intriguingly, comes into his own. Seascape is full, almost to a Shavian degree, of interesting ideas: about how people in pairs share each other’s lives, about how to make creative use of one’s old age, about how to confront the possibility of death, about how to confront beings culturally different from oneself, about the meaning and purpose of life and the pressure of evolution that drives it onward. The moral might be said to be the same as that of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah: What lies beyond doesn’t matter. “It is enough that there is a beyond.”

Albee doesn’t explore his many themes with Shaw’s systematic brand of dialectical playfulness; he’s a weaver rather than a builder, threading one idea into another until a pattern is achieved. Unlike his fuller plays, this one has abrupt gaps in the weave, both intellectual and purely expository. (If the lizards are still so unevolved, how is it that they speak fluent, colloquial English and have human names?) But the unusually bright-colored threads with which Seascape is woven give it a giddy charm that the bigger and solider Albee plays don’t have; it’s the difference between a cheerful patterned vest and a sturdy, warming overcoat. And when Sternhagen skitters about in a fury of activity, while Grizzard, reclining, lazily raises his head to croak a response, Seascape looks like something that will wear well in every season.