By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
When I think of Edward Albee, two particularly pungent quotes come to mind. "I have a fine sense of the ridiculous," says American theater's perennial bad boy, "but no sense of humor."
If you catch Albee's witty, challenging The Play About the Baby, which is receiving its Florida premiere at GableStage in Coral Gables, you won't be able to give this sound bite much credence. Albee has always designed his plays to provoke, not soothe. This Play is no exception, but it does happen to be quite funny. So why doesn't he seem to think so? I suspect Albee likes his reputation as the Eeyore of American playwrights, chewing on his thistles and paying little heed (or so he'd like us to think) to the raves or rants of others. His plays are deliberately enigmatic and confounding, with a thinly disguised contempt for the posh, comfortable audiences that frequent them. To accept himself as humorist might be a near admission that he gives his audience pleasure along with the pain he inflicts.
The story line, such as it is, concerns a generic young couple, Boy and Girl, who await the birth of their child. Moments into the story, Girl exits, screams and groans in childbirth, and then re-enters with their bundle of joy. Boy and Girl (Nick Bixby and Claire Tyler) are naive sexual beings, taken to frolicking in the nude. Girl is happy with new baby at her breast, while Boy reveals he too has a taste for mother's milk and takes more than one turn at Girl's nipple himself. Problems arise when Boy and Girl are visited by Man and Woman (John Felix and Cynthia Caquelin), an older, sophisticated couple who offer the young pair some advice about love, life, and loss in a series of dazzling monologues. But their genial charm belies something more sinister. While Man distracts the couple, Woman slips offstage. Girl senses something's amiss and rushes off, only to find the baby gone. Not to worry, the older couple soothes -- there really isn't any baby after all.
Albee's wisp of a plot bears echoes of many of his plays. The baby/no baby recalls Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The mysterious strangers hark back to A Delicate Balance. And the psychological menace is consistent with every one of his works.
Albee uses dramatic conventions to serve his own thematic purposes. He takes the structure of a well-made play and scours out everything but the plot structure and that most melodramatic of premises, the theft of a baby, to construct the form of a drama but not its substance. The protagonists, Boy and Girl, are established only as types, with stilted language. The antagonists, Man and Woman, are introduced but not explained. The problem in the play is clearly set up by intermission: The baby is missing! But by the time the climax arrives late in the second act when ... well, Albee doesn't give it all away and neither will I.
In essence The Play About the Baby is about the triumph of theatricality -- that dangerously seductive force -- over dramatic truth, which Albee appears to view as the too-comfortable shelter for his sworn foe, bourgeois sentimentality. Man and Woman are theatrical conceits, not "real" characters. Constantly addressing and joking with the audience, they defy dramatic convention, commenting on the stage action and making jokes about the audience's activities during intermission. They even repeat scenes, acting as stage managers, drawing attention at every turn to the artifice of the stage.
Albee continually opts to keep the audience's expectations off balance. He knows that people tend to seek out emotional and logical comfort zones, despite all evidence. Girl's pregnancy and birth are obviously phony. The baby is in utero one moment, a mass of baby blankets the next. Tyler's Girl is lithe and sexual -- not exactly realistic for a mother who has just given birth. But the audience's quest for emotional connection skips right over reality to accept "make-believe" truth. There is a baby in this story, all right, but none in the theatrical event: It may be an emotional essential, but it's really just a prop.
This three-way war among truth, illusion, and illusion as truth is as old as the theater. Shakespeare, who took many a shot at it, might have been on Albee's mind when The Play About the Baby was written -- he certainly references Shakespeare more than once. But Albee's true sources are more Continental: His absurdist tendencies come straight from Camus, Sartre, and Ionesco, his didacticism from the French classicists. Albee comes as an avenging angel, not a healing one. He isn't bringing epiphany or balm like Tennessee Williams or Lanford Wilson; he swings a flaming sword, laying waste to American philistinism. Albee's aesthetics haven't changed much over the years. His bourgeois targets of the Sixties and Seventies have been pretty well worked over by now. But he's still smarter by half than most of his audiences, who apparently don't even realize the enduring hostility he has for them under the laugh lines.
Albee seems much less interested in talking than in listening. Like his French forebears, he's really a propagandist, more polemicist than poet. He flings ideas at you and doesn't bother to give opposing views much credence or respect. Man and Woman have all the epigrams and wit. Boy and Girl are witless, hapless breeders without a clue, let alone a rejoinder. They exist for Man and Woman to verbally dominate -- it's akin to watching a fur hunter bludgeon a baby seal.