Theater

‘Signature Plays’ by Albee, Fornés, and Kennedy Traverse the Inner Landscapes of Grief

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The Signature Theatre has brought back three short plays, all by living authors, that have long been favorites of mine. I should be grateful. But instead I’m rather disconcerted. In Lila Neugebauer’s production “Signature Plays,” the new triple bill of familiar works by Edward Albee, María Irene Fornés, and Adrienne Kennedy doesn’t create the electric charge these beloved creations have had for me in the past.

I don’t want to heap all the blame on Neugebauer. She has taken a strong line, as a director must with works as challenging as these. If her approach ends by vitiating rather than enhancing their effect, the problem may lie less in Neugebauer’s staging than in the fact that these plays sit uncomfortably in our time.

Yet that’s not quite right either. These plays were written when conventional naturalistic playwriting was under assault. They aggressively break the fourth wall and the coherent picture. They employ devices — comic foreshortening, run-on textual barrage, eerily self-aware characters — that younger dramatists, having learned from these writers, use casually. They all also deal with subjects that still affect us, unless you think that grief, love, and racial identity are topics that have suddenly vanished from public discourse.

Somehow, our era has acquired a problem with plays from the past. Postmodernism has taught us not to let them speak for themselves; they are thought to require a framework of comment, or to need their context stripped away or their images deconstructed. Directors, trained in this way of thinking and hungry for opportunities, see a play as a chance to show off their gift for extravagant effect.

In fairness, Neugebauer hasn’t gone that far, but she has done little to make the works register; her impulse to add wildness to the wild work already in hand tends to muffle the scripts rather than helping them speak out. Her struggle with this temptation starts at the top of Albee’s The Sandbox (first produced in 1962), which opens the evening: It’s preceded by a burst of ominous recorded music — Brandon Wolcott’s sound score supplies attention-grabbing distraction throughout — that’s irrelevant to the intentionally banal Pop Art beach scene Albee has conceived (which Mimi Lien’s set captures nicely). It’s also superfluous, since Albee’s script requests, and gets, live accompaniment by a solo cellist (whose music, by William Flanagan, is very apt, and extremely well played by Melody Giron).

Beyond this, Neugebauer doesn’t interfere much with The Sandbox. The actors — Alison Fraser, Phyllis Somerville, and the invariably pitch-perfect Frank Wood — largely capture the tone of Albee’s mournfully sardonic little meditation on dying, and on the difference between the reality of grief and its empty postures. Ryan-James Hatanaka does the Young Man’s calisthenics effectively — it’s Albee’s mordant joke to depict the Angel of Death as a Hollywood wannabe displaying his buff body on a beach — and Mark Barton’s lighting would make the called-for transition from sunshiny day to pitch darkness subtly, if only he hadn’t been asked to stick a sudden blackout and a spotlight effect into it at a pivotal moment. Like the intrusive light cue, Fraser’s underscoring of Mommy’s phony grieving moment weakens the effect by telling us what the play has already said; we don’t need to be told twice.

Instead of a brief break, Neugebauer follows Albee’s quirky fifteen-minute piece with a silly non-event in which a cast member sits onstage, ostensibly channel-surfing a radio while the audience shifts in its seats, uncertain whether to pay attention. This doesn’t help pave the way for Fornés’s Drowning (1986), a truly eccentric but fascinating miniature, originally commissioned for an omnibus evening of adaptations, by contemporary playwrights, of Chekhov short stories.

Superficially, Fornés’s tiny parable on what Hamlet calls “the pangs of dispriz’d love” seems unimaginably far from Chekhov: Her characters are grotesque, warty-skinned creatures resembling potatoes, one of whom falls in love with — and between scenes meets and is fiercely rejected by — a woman whose picture he sees in a newspaper. His sorrow and his close friend’s grief at being unable to alleviate it are the work’s sole content; the play’s force comes from our watching these potato creatures endure emotions we all understand. It’s like a pop quiz on our ability to empathize.

Neugebauer doesn’t trample on this tender gem, but she does hamper our absorption of it. There’s a needlessly elaborate full-stage set, and she has the characters speak in slow, solemn tones, making their simple café conversation sound like a blend of church ritual with an aphasic’s struggle to form words. Sahr Ngaujah, as the sympathetic friend, mercifully seems to forget this imposition from time to time, but the production rarely touches the script’s deep well of emotion.

Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), the evening’s finale, ought to be its most substantive event. Expressionist in approach, with its characters all shards of its heroine’s fragmenting personality, it should be both harrowing and riveting, its tone lapsing into cool, often comically lucid prose then taking off again on hysteric visionary flights. With Queen Victoria, Patrice Lumumba, and Jesus among the avatars of a central figure to whom Kennedy refers throughout as “Negro-Sarah,” the piece offers a cornucopia of arresting images lavish enough to gladden any directorial heart.

The danger involved — into which Neugebauer’s production walks, brashly — is that while relishing the ever-changing imagery, a director can lose sight of the emotionally wounded, increasingly helpless human being at its center: Negro-Sarah, fighting off her traumatic past while desperately reaching for her dream of “a royal world where everything and everyone is white.” The future of this illusion is plainly death, and Negro-Sarah is a modern African-American equivalent of Goethe’s Werther: She kills herself so that her author does not have to. Her sad epitaph, a derisive dismissal of both her dreams and the nightmare history she claims, is spoken by her nastily racist white landlady.

Fraser, as that landlady, catches the pitch of this thoroughly unpleasant role with exactitude. The others, regrettably, are kept much too busy bustling through Neugebauer’s whirlwind welter of effects to focus on the emotional weight their words should bear. This makes no sense with actresses as fine as Crystal Dickinson, January LaVoy, and April Matthis in key roles: One senses tremendous resources scattered and wasted. Kennedy, one of our greatest poets of the theater, deserves better. But the impulse to direct does not always rest content with what a poet’s words can achieve. More’s the pity.

‘Signature Plays’

Signature Theatre

480 West 42nd Street

212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org

Through June 19

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