IMAGINE RICHARD DAWSON behind the big red buzzer, the Family Feud flip-board overhead. He closes in for the compulsory cheek-peck and asks this question: "One hundred people surveyed: A thing you do to exact revenge upon your estranged family." The number one answer, printed in homespun font on the top of the flip-board, is Staging one's own death. (Tom Sawyer did it, notably, although indulgent self-pity knows no age limits.) The distant number two answer: Writing an unflattering exposé and releasing it to the public.
That's the option playwright Edward Albee selected as a response to his own long-standing family feud in the Pulitzer-prize winning play Three Tall Women. Albee's adoptive mother expelled and disowned him at age 18 after discovering his homosexuality. Albee, now 68, never saw her again. Three Tall Women, then, must account for all the missing years; it is, at once, a biography, a condemnation, and a prickly reconciliation.
The play opens with three women (all tall) sitting in a semi-circle in an elegantly decorated room. "A" is 92 years old (she vainly claims to be 91) and as mean as the day her son left. But her pampered cruelty and bigotry have been diluted by frailty and senility; Albee toys with the audience's sympathies as A accuses "the help" of petty theft, then suffers demoralizing episodes of incontinence within the same beat. She is joined by "B" and "C," the one a 52-year-old attendant, and the other a young lawyer called upon to straighten A's neglected finances.
In the first act, A moves shamelessly from tantrum to tantrum, the infantile essence of the monster she has always been. As A, Lois Markle delivers a fairly captivating performance, reproducing a demanding sequence of shrieks and cackles and abusive histrionics. How this compares to the apparently heroic delivery of Myra Carter from the New York production is less certain; near the end of the first act, when B stretches out on the bed and begins to doze, three middle-aged men in my row joined her in head-slumped repose.
If the first act is an exposition on who A is now, Act II is a reconsideration of the path that took her there. Here, B and C are younger incarnations of A, arguing about the inevitability of their becoming. C is ignorant and priggish, denouncing that which she cannot foresee and does not want to understand. B stands on the low outcrop of a mountain of bitterness. Below her are a philandering husband, a resentful sister, an incomprehensible son, a hostile mother-in-law, and a demented mother holed up in the attic with a pack of Pekingese. Above her is the isolation of self-exile from decent humanity: A's scornful, pillow-padded throne. Albee's achievement with Three Tall Women is to reveal the singular desolation of this contemptible place while suggesting the universality of the deterioration and decrepitude that await us all.
Where Three Tall Women resuscitated Albee's renown after a lengthy coma of bad reviews and obscurity, Sam Shepard's Simpatico, from 1994, interrupts a career of seemingly endless critical ascendency. Buried Child returned to Broadway this season, and Simpatico is the sixth Shepard play I've seen this year. It begins in a soiled motel room in Cucamonga, California. Windows open to darkness; a skewed, rust-colored frame above them accentuates the tilted floor. Stop the world, I want to get off.
Vinnie, the room's resident drunk, is another Shepard set-piece of human driftwood, in hiding for over a decade after framing a horse racing official in a sordid sex scandal. Carter is his well-dressed childhood chum and partner in crime; his success bankrolls Vinnie's putrid existence and continued secrecy. But out in the True West, the tables turn as surely as in a revolving restaurant, and everyone is implicated.
Simpatico is not a failure of character, plotting, or acting (though there are elements of all three that do not carry their weight), but of tone. While it's difficult to quantify, one detects it from the excess of laughter--and worse, mis-timed laughter; Shepard has either switched to self-parody, or director Gary Gisselman has included a surfeit of shtick. Probably both. Although all the cues are in place--the desert, the liquor, the characters who say believe you me instead of believe me--the intimacy and immediacy are absent. Ultimately, this might be an inevitability of performing in the Guthrie Lab--a space designated for experiments in theater--now transformed into the guthrie, too: another bleacher-backed proscenium stage with twenty-dollar tickets and all the titular charm of Le Car. CP
Three Tall Women runs through September 22 at the Fitzgerald Theater; call 224-4222.Simpatico runs through October 13 at guthrie, too; call 377-2224.