Seascape is a fantastical forum, where whimsy and humor cannot forever hide the subterranean truth of man’s nature.
[This was reviewed on the final night of previews: It is possible the entire show will have changed by the 11/21 premiere. Just not likely.]
Charles and Nancy are old-fashioned grandparents (gentlepeople, for lack of a better word). They’re direct and sensitive and devoid of the bitterly trenchant wit that might be found in other Albee plays: likeable, without any hesitation or guilt. Leslie and Sarah are young, fertile, reckless and dangerous. They are, without a doubt, carpe-ing their diem. Nancy, who fears her time is running short, is envious and desperate of this other couple; Charles dreams of sinking to the bottom of the sea, he’s done enough. And Leslie and Sarah are both great green Gila-monsters that have crawled out of the sea. Welcome to Lincoln Center’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1974 Pulitzer-winning Seascape.
This is a pretty big cultural divide, to say the least, and the only thing Albee gives them in common is his trademark wit and intelligence. Despite the unnatural circumstance, their verbal sparring is quite natural and keeps us from questioning the surreal. It’s didactic symbolism, not deus ex machina, and the absurdity gives the playwright license to pull the gloves off (though it’s still a light touch). Seascape is a fantastical forum, where whimsy and humor cannot forever hide the subterranean truth of man’s nature.
Frances Sternhagen (Nancy) is a gem, and she either has magnificent chemistry with George Grizzard (Charlie) or she’s that good of an actress—I’ve never seen such a loving relationship onstage. With a lyrical voice, she flirts with language and cavorts across the full gamut of emotion as both the strong matriarch and supportive housewife. Meanwhile, Grizzard is a perfect counterbalance, sedentary and staccato with his one-liners, almost as if hibernating. Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel, unfortunately, get sacrificed to Plot. Seascape uses the monster stereotype with Leslie (menacing and naïve), and Weller can’t avoid sounding like a petulant eight-year-old. Marvel gets slightly better treatment, but still comes across more as effect than a character. Still, as tangible obstacles, both actors throw themselves into the role (literally), crawling across the beautiful sand dunes and crags of the beachside set.
The acts themselves are aesthetically pleasing too; each seems to explore either Charlie or Nancy’s perspective. In the first, Charlie’s, arguments range from the theoretical necessity of liver paste at the beach (for if the roasted chicken falls into the sand) to the use of past tense (and never has so much attention been correctly drawn to the hopefully inaccurate statement “you’ve had a good life”). It lazily meanders through a quiet and contemplative expanse filled mostly of imagery and recollection. In the second, Nancy’s, the lizard-people provide a physical pivot, lots of sight gags, and the uneasy humor of violent comedy. It’s immediate and far more riveting, and yet the first act, more subtle and poignant, really captures the heart and soul of a time-worn relationship. And in either case, terse Albee-ian rhythms and bravura performances keep the whole thing ticking, unhinged only in the last few moments.
Startling, lucid and entertaining, Seascape is a multi-faceted look at two couples coming to terms with their own mortality and existence. Whether or not you like the liberal use of lizards, these are Big (and unsettling) Ideas, presented with flawless comic timing and personable characters, and it’s one of Albee’s best.
Booth Theater (222 West 45th Street)
Tickets: $80-85 (212-239-6200)
Performances: Tuesday-Saturday @ 8:00; Wednesday/Saturday @ 2:00; Sunday @ 3:00