The American Dream / The Sandbox
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 26, 2008
To have Edward Albee, certainly the leading American dramatist of his generation, direct two of his early plays at the very theatre where they—and his career—began...well, that qualifies as an Event. So why is this production of The American Dream and The Sandbox so anti-climactic?
What I felt, keenly, in the wake of recent thrilling revivals of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, All Over, and even last fall's The Zoo Story—not to mention the latest new Albee plays in NYC, The Goat and The Play About the Baby—was a severe lack of star power. Albee demands a great deal from both actors and audience, and to serve the latter a top-notch assemblage of the former seems to be in order. But this double bill, anchored though it is by Judith Ivey and Lois Markle, fine actresses both, gives us no outsized characterizations or unforgettable interpretations. And considering the somewhat pumped-up circumstance of this particular presentation, that's rather a let-down.
And the plays themselves do not seem to stand the test of time as much as I'd assumed they would. The American Dream, particularly, reveals itself to be a promising but flawed work of a young playwright of brilliance. It takes place in an archetypal American apartment living room (dressed, with no subtlety whatsoever, by set designer Neil Patel in garish reds, whites, and blues). Here we meet Mommy, a grasping, shallow, manipulative woman who lives to consume both products and people, and Daddy, her older, dimmer, emasculated husband. Mommy's mother Grandma completes the household; she's spry, sly, and generally a lot of fun—sort of a prototype for all the naughty, ill-treated old folks that would come to figure prominently in American pop culture from The Golden Girls' Sophia forward. Grandma harangues Mommy by speaking the truth about her. Mommy puts Grandma in her place by threatening to have the Van Man take her away.
Into this poisoned atmosphere come two visitors. The first is Mrs. Barker, an upper-class woman who isn't entirely sure why she's there, and the second is a buff, handsome young man in a t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. He is all beautiful surface, with no heart or soul underneath; Grandma correctly identifies him as The American Dream.
The play covers a good deal of ground that must have felt jolting and remarkable 50 years ago: elements from the works of Beckett and Ionesco are easy to detect (but wouldn't have been then, I imagine); the influence of Williams and Miller are prominent as well, in the characters of the Young Man and the overall allegorical tone. Albee is condemning a way of life and a set of values that he will attack with more precision and vigor in Virginia Woolf and other later plays. So the experience of watching The American Dream is like sitting inside a terrarium with Albee's dramatic forebears and his own greater creations to come, and seeing how the one group fostered the other.
But it's not a satisfying theatrical experience in and of itself. Judith Ivey's Mommy dominates the proceedings but feels coarser than she needs to; Kathleen Butler's more understated (and vaguely pixilated) Mrs. Barker is by far the more interesting character to observe. George Bartenieff's unenergetic Daddy is pointed but one-note. Lois Markle as Grandma unfortunately suffered, at least at the performance reviewed, from her protracted rehearsal period (she's a new arrival to the cast, replacing Myra Carter, who took ill). Harmon Walsh doesn't quite project the golden-boy freshness that I expected to find in the Young Man but otherwise acquits himself well.
After intermission comes The Sandbox, which, in just 15 minutes, says pretty much everything The American Dream does with considerably more bite and succinctness. Mommy and Daddy have come to the beach, where they drop Grandma into a sandbox, presumably to leave her there to die. Another Young Man, this one a movie-star-wannabe, befriends Grandma. Adding to the surrealism of the situation is a musician who plays the cello at Mommy's behest, providing Grandma with a classy send-off.
I found The Sandbox refreshing and interesting after The American Dream; here Albee is starting to get somewhere. Its brevity is breathtaking. Daniel Shevlin as the musician and especially Jesse Williams as this second Young Man inject much-needed energy into the proceedings.
Carrie Robbins's costumes for both plays are as broad and on-the-money as Neil Patel's sets. Presumably the plays look and feel the way Albee wants us to experience them. The result is certainly worthwhile, especially for those interested in the course of American drama over the last half-century or so. But it's not the potent reunion that—I suspect—Albee, the folks at Cherry Lane, and the dedicated audiences of both were hoping it would be.