Darwin, Reconsidered


Jungle Theater

THAT'S EDWARD ALBEE for you: Take a simple play about a retired couple sitting on the beach, gently bickering over their triumphs and regrets. Then throw in a couple of gigantic talking sea lizards. See what happens. No, the reptiles don't drink themselves bitter, or wax dim on fancy ontological questions (see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and All Over, respectively). They don't even mutter plotless, stream-of-self-consciousness tangents (see a whole bunch of other Albee works). In fact, they're charming as hell. Whatever else may trickle from his pen, Edward Albee proves with Seascape that he possesses a goofy and endearing mind. And after a ponderous stretch with Long Day's Journey Into Night, this piece provides a dose of comic relief to Jungle-goers.

We could debate whether Seascape deserved the Pulitzer it won in 1975. I'd argue con; the play doesn't say much that we haven't heard a million times before--except, perhaps, that there's nothing like a couple of oversized amphibians to get a party going. (Furthermore, on a purely personal note, I admit to growing weary of the avalanche of plays, books, and movies made in the past 50 years or so concerning middle age. Baby boomers aside, the great American playwrights of the 20th century--Miller, O'Neill, Williams--have, as often as not, obsessed over it.) Ultimately, though, I don't really care whether it deserved the Pulitzer, and I doubt Albee does either. Only a supremely confident, self-indulgent mind could have written Seascape--a mind that works by some kind of cryptic intuition.

As it turns out, this kind of innate insight is also a theme of the play. The initial plot of Seascape concerns the marriage between Nancy and Charlie, played gorgeously by Nancy Plank and Paul Boesing. They're basically happy together, but they have that tension one sees in so many older couples. Charlie has a slow metabolism, and he'd be happy to snooze his way to an easy grave. Nancy is a spitfire, an adventurer on the cusp of a new, post-menopausal life. Together, the actors show a palpable chemistry. Through a slow hug or the sardonic tone of voice as they finish each other's sentences, their entire history unfolds: stray embers of sexuality, layers of cross-purposes and affection. Though the elegant dialogue between the pair can sometimes seem overdeliberate and inappropriate, the first act is, more or less, beautifully written and performed.

The set, designed by Bain Boehlke, is a bold attempt at hyper-realism, comprising five tons of sand and enormous styrofoam "rocks." True, many of the stones appear a little too colorful, a bit too chiseled. The shrubs look stiff, and the beams overhead make for an unconvincing sky. Perhaps due to the actors' skills, we hardly notice these imperfections by the second act. The semirealism pays off, as do the fantastic lizard costumes. Bright green, with four-toed claws and elaborate face makeup, they may remind you of creatures from one of those Star Trek spinoffs (which is no accident--designer Cynthia Morrill has worked on both Star Trek and Babylon 5).

It's possible, in fact, that our reptile friends are aliens--or stand-ins for them. These two, named Sarah and Leslie, have decided after protracted discussion to leave the ocean and have a go at dry land. They just don't feel right underwater anymore, though they can't explain why; it's one of those "do it to see why you did it" situations. Call it an act of intuition, faith, and courage. Like moving to the New World, or taking up a new lifestyle late in the game. This is evolution. Nancy understands.

Stephen D'Ambrose and Laura Barnes Ricci are adorable, achieving a sort of mature naïveté as they patiently allow the humans to explain everything from birds to emotion and child-rearing. Through this process, Charlie and Nancy convey the underpinnings of Western thought: I think, therefore I am and the like. Development is inherently good, or at least healthy. Humans are better than the other animals, and more interesting to boot. Still, some buried part of Charlie remains unconvinced by this cant; he longs to return to the ocean, or the womb, as he explains in an affecting monologue delicately delivered by Boesing. That longing is something the audience understands, too.

Seascape plays at the Jungle Theater through Sept. 14; call 822-7063.

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