Last Tuesday, I went to see Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque. I knew the play had been a failure during its original run, but I have never read it or seen it before. I went in completely blind. Although it’s an agonizing rage of pain, it’s so totally cathartic and theatrical and Edward, it’s a terrific evening of theater.
Many of the themes familiar to Albee plays are visible here: death, identity, helplessness. Even some mommy issues. They’re presented a little differently, though—not quite as absurdist, but not quite naturalistic either. To be honest, the balance is a bit tenuous sometimes, but it’s never less than compelling.
We start with yet another dinner party from hell, with three couples playing parlor games that never seem to be very fun. Our host, played beautifully by Michael Hayden, is constantly asking “Who am I?”, both in a 20-Questions way, and in a philosophical way that resonates throughout the evening. Hayden’s wife, played brilliantly by Laila Robins, is caustic and funny, and after we discover that she is dying, the bile that comes out from her is startling yet completely relatable. As the evening progresses, more pain and more questions arise.
Why you are who you are, and why you surround yourself with whom you surround yourself, are huge questions here, along with bandying about the ideas of the selfishness of grief and letting go. Heady, gorgeous stuff. The helpless of the characters is almost mirrored by how helpless you feel as an audience member – it’s as if this crazy stuff is meant to keep everyone off balance, characters and audience alike. It’s quite a tightrope that isn’t always successful, but is always worth watching. The two plus hours really fly by. In the interest of full disclosure, there were quite a few empty seats after intermission (at least in my section), the couple behind me hated it (though they came back from intermission) and a fight in the last row of my section nearly broke out over…something. I was too busy enjoying myself to get the whole story.
The entire cast is terrific, most especially the previously mentioned Hayden and Robins, plus Jane Alexander as the ambiguous Lady from Dubuque and Peter Francis James as her companion are also wonderful. It was just nice to see something that asked a lot of me, and that has been rolling around in my brain ever since. Thumbs way up from me.
The new Signature space is certainly large and modern. Maybe too modern for my tastes. Why do all new theater spaces seem so impersonal? I don’t get it. But the theater itself had a nice airy feel, though the smell of new wood gave me the sneezies at the top of the show. People with severe allergies beware. And the seat numbers are really hard to find (patrons of a certain age had no idea where to find their seat – I was helping out a lot). I’m seeing the Fugard play in a couple of weeks, so I’ll see if that theater is the same design as this one. With three plays running at the same time, there was a nice buzz in the building, and the café/lounge area looked like it was hopping both before and after the show. So, I guess so far, the new Signature space is a success. I will admit to missing the Peter Norton Theater. Not the frigging hike to get over there, but I just loved that theater. Every seat was a good one, and there was a warm vibe that I enjoyed. Oh well.
Wednesday night, I was fortunate enough to get comps to the re-mounting of David Ives’ Venus in Fur. It moved from the Manhattan Theater Club space to the Lyceum Theater a couple of weeks ago. You may remember that I saw (and greatly enjoyed) the show downtown in 2010, but I didn’t get the chance to see the Broadway version at MTC. I was very happy to finally see it again.
I remember when I saw the show downtown that I thought Nina Arianda was spectacular. Everyone did, actually, and she became quite the It Girl. As well she should. She is just as spectacular now, maybe even more so, now that she has the equally wonderful Hugh Dancy to act opposite. Wes Bentley was fine in the downtown version, but he didn’t hold a candle to Arianda, and it weakened the impact of the end of the play for me.
This play is funny, sexy, creepy and totally original. There were huge laughs, huge gasps and huge twists. The twists and turns of the plot leave you as clueless as the director character, played by Dancy. And the range of Arianda as the enigmatic Vanda (both the auditioning actress Vanda and the play-within-a-play Vanda) is astonishing. There is so much verve and spark to her performance, and not in an actor-y, showy way, but in a true star way. I loved it, again, and think I may need to go back. The only quibble I have (and it’s not really a quibble) is that Dancy and Arianda are on such an express train, they often don’t pause for laughs/gasps, and you miss some of David Ives’ delicious dialogue. I appreciate their maintaining the forward momentum, which is crucial to the piece, but I also was disappointed to miss some dialogue. It’s a slippery slope, I guess.
So, bottom line, I think everyone should go go go to both these shows. Thank you. J
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