Grave Discomfort

The Rep's Albee revival is caustic and comic.

Dying people say the strangest things. In Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque—currently playing at the Rep under the direction of artistic director David Esbjornson—one character's impending demise lends the dramatic proceedings a severely confrontational edge, as mortal reckonings work to peel away the everyday veil of propriety and politesse. Not that the ailing Jo (Carla Harting) is much for biting her tongue under the best of circumstances; as she and her husband, Sam (Charlie Matthes), play dinner hosts to a handful of long-standing acquaintances, we come to see—through the snarkiest, bitterest repartee—that none of these folks seem to much like each other. In this disconcerting, uncomfortable, and fitfully successful production, truth is wielded like a cudgel, an instrument not of revelation but of mockery and humiliation. And the specter of mortality, like some WASPish inversion of Poe's Red Death, works not to unmask hypocrisy but only to further drench its subordinates in a self-propagating miasma of desperation and loss.Esbjornson and crew deserve kudos for tackling this odd duck of a play. It isn't Albee's strongest work. Lacking the organic flow and narrative balance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or A Delicate Balance, Lady comes across as less an integrated work than an extended primer on the artist's concerns—a grim grab bag of middle-class pathologies and existential dead-ends. As such, the play is spiked to the gills with gravitas, and Albee so piles up the emotional wreckage that he at times threatens to overwhelm and scuttle the story itself. Despite this, the play does pack an emotional punch. The first half, which focuses exclusively on the fraught evening of Jo and Sam's get-together, is a fairly straight-forward study in social tension and bad behavior. As shitty feelings come to a boil among a tangle of less-than-likable characters—which, along with Jo and Sam, includes the neurotically sensitive Lucinda (Kristin Flanders) and her mincing pushover of a husband, Edgar (Paul Morgan Stetler), as well as anally expulsive "redneck" Fred (Hans Altwies) and his not-so-ditzy girlfriend, Carol (Chelsey Rives)—Albee exhibits his trademark skill at penning spiky, loaded dialogue and the telling detail of disturbed characters. In the playwright's hands, even a simple game of 20 questions becomes a psychological minefield.Things go seriously wonky-doodle in Act 2, with the mysterious, middle-of-the-night appearance of Elizabeth—our lady from Dubuque—along with her supercilious consort, Oscar, superbly played by Frank X. In the title role, Myra Carter is just delightful, playing the part with a combination of matronly charm and schoolmarmish spunk. Her initial doddering as she evades Sam's questions—"But who are you?" he insists over and over—belies an edginess that only amplifies the play's collective fog of deception and betrayal. Claiming to be Jo's mother, it is Elizabeth who has come at last to comfort the dying woman, seeking, as she says, only to take the sick girl in her arms, brush her hair, stroke her fevered brow. And yet it is Elizabeth's, and to an extent Oscar's, interactions with those who have failed to comfort Jo—that is, everyone—that provide the play's most telling moments. In Albee's caustic world, not even Death herself trucks with bourgeois hypocrisy, and Elizabeth, by turns evasive and wryly Socratic, sends a seismic jolt of shock and awe through the game-playing ways of what can only be considered her wards. The resulting revelations and alignments are as heartbreaking as they are inevitable.Lady is a difficult, trying play, though overall its unevenness renders it no less disturbing. A number of exceptional performances help carry the action: Carter's beguiling turn as the Lady, the always excellent Altwies, and Rives as the sole character capable of breaking through the strangling shackles of solipsism and self-defeat. As Jo, Harting is good at capturing the occasional self-regarding rancor of the terminally ill, though she seems to have a difficult time incorporating the actual physical fact of illness—the pain—into her performance. This disconnect may account for the play's strange lack of pathos, a lack which in the end diminishes the work's emotional impact. Fortunately, there is enough humor (some of it physical) to leaven the zip and sting of Albee's corrosive sensibility. On the whole, the play is worth a look, if only for this: When the lady from Dubuque knocks, you gotta let her in.

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