What Baby?

Look! Up on the stage! It's absurd ... it's a play ... it's Edward Albee!

But despite all this, I'll take Albee any day. I'm happy to drag my lazy bones out to a theatrical production that challenges something more than just my wallet. Predictable, comfortable pabulum can be had 24/7 on television, in congress, and most anywhere one cares to look. So a good dose of Albee is a welcome refresher; his work demands a lot from its audience, not only to surrender expectations about story and emotional involvement but to risk making individual conclusions. There is no clear, obvious way to respond to this material -- and that may leave many playgoers uncomfortable.

It's supposed to. But the pleasures here are many. Joe Adler's crisp, lean staging seems perfectly balanced between a playful style and an unsettling creepiness, both bright and cold by turns. He directs carefully but in an understated way. Nothing is explicated, nothing underscored. And nothing is predictable. As soon as the production seems to settle into a groove, Adler is willing to take it into a hairpin turn. If audiences find themselves leaning back in their seats, it's not from complacency; it's from sheer G-force. The design component here is outstanding. Jeff Quinn's set, a faux plank floor and a blue wall with white painted clouds, emphasizes the play's theatricality, using a cutout proscenium arch complete with a large baby's head as a bas-relief centerpiece for a literal framing device. Daniela Schwimmer's costume design, with electric blues and pinks, nicely abets Adler's off-kilter vision.

As usual Adler works with a top-flight cast, one that reportedly received Albee's approval as a condition for production. As Man and Woman, John Felix and Cynthia Caquelin dominate the proceedings with a terrific blend of charm and menace. Felix is an avuncular huckster, reassuring and jolly at one moment, brutally sadistic the next. Caquelin's grace masks something even more frightening. She seems both capable of anything and capable of regret. As Boy and Girl, Bixby and Tyler offer innocent, flummoxed charm. All of these roles must have been remarkably difficult to rehearse. Felix and Caquelin in particular are working without a net. Their characters are total artifice with no personal history -- all presentation, no representation. When Man and Woman walk out onstage, it's as if they are entering their own talk show rather than a conventional play, carrying the evening on the strength of their charisma. Meanwhile Bixby and Tyler have an inverse problem: maintaining a grounded emotional truth amid the theatrical chaos.

Claire Tyler and Nick Bixby lose their innocence -- and their child
George Schiavone
Claire Tyler and Nick Bixby lose their innocence -- and their child

Details

Presented by Gable Stage;305-445-1119
The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables

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The bottom line: The Play About the Baby isn't just an intellectual exercise; it turns theater into a contact sport. You'll enjoy wrestling with its implications. Oh, I almost forgot: the other Albee quote? "If Attila the Hun were alive today, he'd be a drama critic."

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