Jo (Laila Robins) is dying. But that doesn’t stop her and her husband, Sam (Michael Hayden), from having friends over to play party games in their spacious two-story home, sweepingly designed by John Arnone with a museum-width modernist staircase. At the start of Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque (Pershing Square Signature Center), they’re playing Twenty Questions, and it’s Sam’s turn. “Who am I?” he asks. The question will be reiterated, in increasingly larger contexts, as Albee’s troubling, frustrating, fascinating play speeds on.
In the game, Sam turns out to “be” two people, mythical twin brothers who have a fatal disagreement. But as Jo’s pain increases, ratcheting up her hostility toward Sam and their guests, two mythical people, distinctly not brothers, arrive: a woman (Jane Alexander) claiming to be Jo’s mother “from Dubuque,” and her companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James), a man of color who claims to be many things and displays quasi-supernatural powers. Who are they? No answer they give satisfies Sam.
He can’t get satisfaction, in part, because he hasn’t fully answered his own initial question yet. Deep down, he doesn’t know who he is, or who his friends are. A metaphysical allegory carried on in the brusque, “get-the-guests” tone of Virginia Woolf‘s middle act, the play has a political edge that keeps it from turning either cosmically airy or crass. Two strangers take over your house, overpower you, and watch approvingly while a supposedly close friend ties you up: Even allegorically, those events wouldn’t sound metaphysical to an Eastern European.
But metaphysics is still the essence. Jo’s impending death, the first fact we learn in the play, remains its constant, the harsh, simple truth that Sam is simultaneously striving to accept and refusing to absorb. At the end, he’s alone, with untrustworthy friends and unexplained intruders both gone. As a statement, the play’s complete: Albee has created a powerful, multi-layered image of dying and the sense of loss it brings, complete with feelings of helplessness, of the futile comfort friends offer, of a terrifying, inexplicable presence having invaded one’s life. Even a multi-layered image, though, isn’t a drama. Albee tilts this particular image in various directions, showing off its many facets, here the protracted agony, there the lame attempts at optimistic bravado. What he doesn’t do is draw you through the experience across time—precisely theater’s function. A sharp, witty, and astute playwright, he declines here, as in several of his other works, his obligations as a dramatist.
David Esbjornson’s sleek yet surprisingly poignant production, with its strongly focused acting, underscores the missing element’s absence. Robins’s Jo, her devastating moans and screeches dazzlingly varied by stabs of caustic ferocity, makes such a powerful impression that the reduction of her role, in act two, to an occasional vague whimper seems an authorial lapse, supplying neither the slow waning nor the sudden disappearance that make a loved one’s death so traumatic. After intermission, Jo is simply sort of there, and then sort of not.
Similarly, Albee shortchanges his metaphysical intruders. The title role apparently invites a star, and Jane Alexander unmistakably deserves that status. But Albee has given her little chance to unleash her star power, instead shifting our attention to Oscar, who initiates such action as the pair takes. His barbed badinage about race with Sam and his friends advances nothing, merely layering more politics onto the image. Francis James handles the role with suavity. Still, audience eyes keep turning to where Alexander sits, placidly inactive, lending her vibrancy to the intermittent remarks Albee has vouchsafed her.
Rarely has a playwright brought a goddess onstage to do so little. And this “lady from Dubuque”—who is not, as she carefully explains to us, The New Yorker‘s prototype-provincial “little old lady from Dubuque”—is, discernibly, a goddess, not Jo’s biological mother but the serene Magna Mater who brings birth and death to us all. Yet divine intervention, in drama, should act as a catalyst, compelling the protagonist to grow to a realization of self. This doesn’t happen: Sam simply remains, obdurate and puzzled. Hayden, stuck in this gnomic role, seems to have stopped digging at some point. One can’t say the script encouraged him to search deeper. Riveting yet off-putting, it feels frozen, a fossil reality trapped in amber.