Edward Albeeï¿½s The American Dream and The Sandbox are to many of Albeeï¿½s later plays what posters are to high art.
As directed by Albee himself in a revival at the Cherry Lane Theater, these two one-acters from the very beginning of Albeeï¿½s career (about 1960) provide a colorful but thoroughly superficial introduction to that playwrightï¿½s take on ï¿½family values.ï¿½
If you know nothing about Albeeï¿½s biography (adopted son who failed miserably to fulfill his rich connected parentsï¿½ expectations), the characters of ï¿½Mommyï¿½ (a perfect performance by Judith Ivey) and ï¿½Daddyï¿½ (George Bartenieff)ï¿½written in acid in both playsï¿½tell you all you need to know about young Albeeï¿½s view of the elder Albees. And then there is the character of ï¿½Grandmaï¿½ (Lois Merkle), both ï¿½loony tunesï¿½ and wise, whose approaching death provides the frame for the biting sarcasm that pervades both plays.
Albeeï¿½s early talent is on display in the surrealistic atmosphere he creates and the occasionally witty dialogue. But his direction here seems intent on overemphasis of the obvious. Neil Patelï¿½s sets and Carrie Robbinsï¿½ costumes are coordinated to a fault. The American Dream is all red, white and blue. The Sandbox is all gloomy beach and funereal duds (the buff young Angel of Death is clad in a black Speedo).
Though these two plays are related by characters and theme, they make for an odd evening of theater. Dream runs about one hour. Then there is a full intermission. Sandbox lasts a mere 15 minutes. With full price tickets at $60, this revival is a must only for those interested in seeing the complete Albee canon.
The big event off-Broadway this spring season is the revival of Edward Albee's "The Sandbox" and "The American Dream," two bizarre one-act plays that give us insight into the thinking of the great playwright when he was a young man. And we know that what we see onstage is exactly what Albee wants us to see because he directed this production himself.
The plots of the plays are superficially autobiographical, referencing Albee's early life as a poor little rich boy. The vicious Mommy and the passive Daddy, two main characters in both plays, represent Albee's wealthy adoptive parents who considered him a wayward son, while Grandma, who also appears in both plays, is the embodiment of his beloved grandmother, and it is to her that "The Sandbox" is dedicated.
Though hardly great theater, these one-acts give important insight into the budding playwright, and are being revived to celebrate his 80th birthday. Written in 1959 and 1960, when Albee was in his early 30s, these short works foreshadow "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," the playwright's greatest masterpiece -- you won't have any trouble recognizing George and Martha in Mommy and Daddy.
"The American Dream" opens benignly enough as Daddy complains about the management of their apartment, and how you just can't get anything done these days, while Mommy goes on irrelevantly about a beige hat, and the fact that the Chairwoman of her Ladies Club said it was really wheat. Looking daggers at Daddy, who's rhythmically pounding his thighs with his fists, Mommy keeps pausing her vapid monologue to make sure Daddy is listening. He is, or at least he appears to be since he can repeat the last few words of each of Mommy's last sentences.
Mommy tells Daddy she loves him because he's rich. But she doesn't love Grandma who keeps intruding, bringing in boxes wrapped in American flag paper, and sniping at Mommy, who snipes back. Mommy keeps telling her she's waiting for a van to take her away. But she's really waiting for Mrs. Barker -- and someone else. Where are they? Why are they so late, she keeps asking. But we don't know who "they" is.
It's not until Mrs. Barker arrives that things begin to unravel, and it takes a while before she gets to the point: many years ago, as head of an adoption agency, Mrs. Barker was responsible for bringing a "bumble of joy" into the lives of Mommy and Daddy. What happened to their "bumble" and who "they" refers to is the cruel shocker that makes us sit upright.
It was Grandma who spilled the beans about the "bumble," and she's enjoying the fireworks so much, she steps out of the play -- breaking the fourth wall -- so she can watch it all from a safe distance. Albee, in fact, keeps this beloved woman safe throughout, and in "The Sandbox," which lasts only 13 minutes, he gives Grandma a few minutes of heaven in the shape of a buff young man before he lets her go.
Though "American Dream" and "Sandbox" are autobiographical, Albee is too complex a playwright to leave it there. He is not just trashing parents who didn't understand the unconventional young man they adopted, he is also trashing The American Dream, vilifying the people who took "Father Knows Best," "Donna Reed," and "The Ozzie and Harriet Show" as their model for the best of all possible worlds.
Judith Ivey, with a voice like a buzzsaw, creates a Mommy that exactly personifies Albee's vision; Daddy, played by George Bartenieff, is sympathetic at times, but his emotions are frozen as he withdraws within himself. Grandma, regally portrayed by Lois Markle, gives as good as she gets to her defiant daughter -- she'll go when she's good and ready, and not a minute sooner.
These two one-act plays are causing quite a stir at the Cherry Lane, but you've only till April 26th to see them. Taking our norms and turning them inside out and upside down is Albee's signature, and "The American Dream" reminds us that we must constantly refine our own version of the American Dream before we eventually dive into the finality of the Sandbox.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus