nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 4, 2005
For every brave ancient fish that climbed onto the land and figured out how to sprout legs, there are, demonstrably, millions that didn't: evolution seems to be the exception, not the rule, for most members of any given species at any given moment in history. This is where the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Edward Albee's play Seascape took me; I'm not at all sure that that's where Albee or anyone else among the creative team intended me to go.
In Seascape, a husband and wife—Charlie and Nancy—are alone on a beach, finishing up a picnic lunch and discussing lots of stuff, mainly what they're going to do next. Not next meaning right after the picnic, but rather next meaning now that their children are grown and beginning families of their own, now that they've accomplished the things they thought they were supposed to accomplish—what do they do now? In a nutshell, the two positions are: nothing (his) and something (hers). Though she's not especially able to come up with a specific and genuinely actionable suggestion, Nancy wants to go forward to some unknown but worthy destination, not remain inertly in the same place or, worse, regress, waiting in some retirement community for the end.
Their conversation is interrupted by the sudden appearance of another couple, Leslie and Sarah, who are younger but apparently just as conflicted. Also, they're lizards of some kind (vividly realized by Catherine Zuber's costumes, which are this production's standout element), with rough, scaly camouflage-skin, great waddles under their chins, and big, powerful tails. Quickly, both couples understand that they can communicate with each other, and eventually they understand that the question facing each is precisely the same—to evolve, or not to evolve?
It's a weighty subject, but it somehow feels light-headed much of the time in this play; as I said, I was more aware of those who don't make the leap that progress seems to demand (either through conscious choice or, more likely, because it never occurs to them to change), and that kind of torpid thinking runs decidedly contrary to my usual impulse. Why did the secure, unadventurous alternative appeal to me here? Why did I think, as Charlie and Nancy try to encourage Leslie and Sarah not to return to their comfortable underwater home but instead to stake out new turf on dry Earth, that the humans ought to mind their own business?
Seascape, it occurs to me, is a play about midlife crisis. In America, at least among our privileged classes, it's entirely possible to be "all done" while still a vigorous 50-something: kids all grown up, house paid for, retirement secure. I think the questions that Charlie and Nancy are asking themselves have to do with finding purpose beyond the obvious and ordained: if we can scale a higher mountain, shouldn't we? Mustn't we?
That's an option available only to those affluent enough to afford it, however, in all the different ways that anybody can afford anything. One of the things that jars terribly about this production is that neither Frances Sternhagen (as Nancy) nor George Grizzard (as Charlie) looks quite ready to tackle more evolving. I don't mean to be ageist here: I'm all for learning new things no matter how old you are. But Charlie's crisis of inertia is tragic in a 50-year-old; it feels almost beside-the-point in an 80-year-old. Grizzard and Sternhagen, grand actors that they are (and a pleasure to watch on stage under any circumstances, don't get me wrong), feel entirely miscast in Seascape. Grizzard comes across as worn-out physically as Charlie professes to be spiritually. And Sternhagen never conveys the deep, lively, constantly-in-motion curiosity and intelligence that Nancy seems to possess. I couldn't believe in what they were worried about.
Frederick Weller is superb, though, as Leslie, really showing us the conflicting emotions, needs, and desires that any sentient being experiences when trying to make a brave and astonishing leap into his own uncertain future. Weller's physicality is also tremendous here—he really commits to being a giant lizard, and I was particularly impressed by how gracefully he is able to slither up and down Michael Yeargan's craggy, sandy beach setting, often on his belly. Elizabeth Marvel does good work as Leslie's helpmeet Sarah.
Mark Lamos's direction is brisk enough, though it seemed to me that Nancy and Charlie spent more time than they should talking out to the audience than to each other. What I didn't feel anywhere in this production, except occasionally in Weller's performance, was a compelling reason for it: I left the theatre wondering whose idea it was to mount this particular old Albee play, and for what reason—because nothing I saw on stage engaged me enough or felt resonant enough to allow me to answer the fundamental question behind any big-budget revival: why Seascape, why now?