If you want to see a master class on acting and experience the serious thrill of a new theatre complex, then hustle on over to Signature Theatre and buy a ticket ($25 for all seats – I am not kidding) to The Lady From Dubuque. There you will see Jane Alexander as Elizabeth and her not shabby at all partner Oscar (Peter Francis James) giving performances that deserve high praise indeed.
This Lady from Dubuque is no lady, even though she acts like it. She is there to give succor to Jo (Laila Robins) who is dying a very public and nasty death from cancer. Elizabeth is there because no one else is, not in the actual sense. This little sliver of a suburb is filled with people whose sympathy threshold is mountain high. Even Jo’s husband, Sam (Michael Hayden) is so tired of this death he could scream, but he doesn’t have to because Jo takes care of that task frequently and with gusto.
The neighbors Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife Lucinda (Catherine Curtain) and Fred (C.J. Wilson) and his current girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio) are staples of the Albee universe. They are self centered and unaware. Coming over for drinks every week is something they do, that’s all. And while they notice the insults and put downs flying, many of which they initiate, they keep coming back. So numb are they to their surroundings that when Jo doubles over in pain, they more or less carry on without a pause. They know if they tried to help her she would push them away, and if they left what would they do with themselves for the rest of the evening? This is a living room into which you expect George and Martha to appear at any minute, so charged is it with electricity you can almost touch.
Thankfully, it is Elizabeth and Oscar who enter, and with them a whole new ballgame begins. This is partially due to the script that shifts its tenor and texture in the second act, and it is partially due to the actors themselves. Alexander and James are in a world all their own on that stage. With the exception of C.J. Wilson and Tricia Paoluccio, the rest of this cast seems lost. The characters are, of course, but the actors seem to have left the building as well. They exhibit no variety or depth in the many lines that are often repetitious, because Albee is looking for that thing that happens when we hear ourselves go deeper and deeper into what we are trying to say. These are strange performances indeed, it and leaves one to wonder if there were two different directors because the difference in performances is so startling. Alexander and James seem to be the adult actors who arrive to clear up the detritus after the children have collectively thrown a fit. Even the set has a more cohesive feel after they arrive.
But the rough going in the first act is enough to make us leave at intermission, because Albee hooks us, in spite of the performances. He builds a cat’s cradle of relationships that is seductive and smothering at the same time. We cannot bear to watch. We cannot turn away. Which ultimately is a good thing, because we are rewarded by Alexander and James who are so good together it is like watching Rogers and Astaire. This pair, as I said, have come to offer aide to Jo. And the only way they can do it is to take the entire world as these folk know it and turn it on its head. This they do, with the Lady insisting she is Jo’s mother from Dubuque in spite of the protestations from Sam. Oscar never identifies himself but is willing to challenge the question of his identity from anyone who tries his patience. That would be Sam alone. For when the neighbors return for a morning pick-me-up of bile, they see no reason to consider the weight of Sam’s insistence that Elizabeth is NOT Jo’s mother, and turn on him with a flick of the wrist. This leaves Elizabeth and Oscar to complete the task for which they have come.
In the end it is Sam who is left alone in a landscape where he recognizes nothing and no one. Jo has the easy bit, she gets to die. Sam is the one who has the hardest job of all: he gets to live.
Between Albee, Alexander and James it is a thrilling experience to behold.
And if you haven’t seen the new Signature Theatre, you really must. The lobby alone is worth the visit (and it is open every day at 10 for your enjoyment) complete with all sorts of food and drink, plenty of places to sit, and a book store in case you forgot reading material. And if you have the pleasure of attending a performance, ladies, you will find a restroom with 18 stalls. Brilliant.
"Exquisitely mounted production."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"A worthwhile revival of this spiky but symbol-sodden look at life and death."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Director David Esbjornson has a good touch with Albee — he directed the Tony-winning 'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?' in 2002 — and makes a good case for this play’s mix of sophistication and crassness, stylization and realism."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"This blistering yet deeply humane metaphysical drama about death ranks with Albee's finest work. ... A sure and stunning blow to the heart."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"Director David Esbjornson’s handsome staging unfolds with fluid grace, making this an optimal production of second-tier Albee, which is still powerful stuff."
David Cote for Time Out NY
"Stimulating study in perception and understanding."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"This metaphysical mystery is surprisingly shallow on the life-and-death issues it raises."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...