Intelligent Design 

Albee's Seascape: a coming-of-age story.

Edward Albee, the playwright and contrarian known for such eviscerating visions of American domestic life as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and more recently The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, once said that artists who are willing to fail interestingly also tend to succeed interestingly.

Nowhere is this principle more perfectly illustrated than in Albee's play Seascape, a theatrical oddity that earned the author his second Pulitzer Prize in 1975, which, to keep things in perspective, was a truly awful year for American playwrighting. Reviews of this bizarre script about a vacationing older couple's somewhat antagonistic encounter with a pair of giant talking sea lizards, ranged from mixed to terrible, and the show closed after 65 performances. But what's most interesting about Seascape, in success and in failure, is how well it has held up over the decades. Although there is little rapport between the two principal actors, Theatre Memphis' production of Seascape doesn't feel like the revival of a 30-year-old play of dubious merit so much as the risky mounting of a new and vital work.

If Eugene Ionesco domesticated European absurdist drama, Albee fully Americanized it. Several of Albee's major works, The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and Three Tall Women in particular, could pass for Yankee adaptations of plays by Samuel Beckett. In fact, Seascape's first act might easily be viewed as either an homage to or a theft of Beckett's Happy Days, a play that finds Winnie, its sleepless female protagonist, halfway in the grave and buried up to her neck in sand and talking compulsively to Willie, her laconic, self-interested companion. Seascape, by comparison, finds Nancy (Jo Lynne Palmer) on the beach, halfway buried in the notion that she's halfway buried.

"If you continue the temporary, it becomes permanent," Nancy says to Charlie, urging her husband to revitalize their sex life, if only for one moment ... and then another. Charlie (Bob Brittingham), who lies about like the dead, wants no part of his wife's plan, and his ultimate assertion that he deserves "a little rest" brings out a kind of petulance in Nancy, who, after raising three children, thinks she might have earned "a little life" instead.

"In [Happy Days] you have the combination of the strange and the practical, the mysterious and the factual," Beckett once said, adding that this conflicted condition was "the crux" of both the comedy and the tragedy. And so it is with Seascape. Just at the point when Nancy's nattering becomes too factual, when emotions threaten to boil over into an unpleasant "Albeesque" confrontation, the fantastical takes over. Sarah and Leslie, a pair of giant lizards, emerge from the ocean because they've come to believe that they no longer belong in the water. In a comic and slyly sinister redux of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the two couples engage in a high-stakes battle of wits and instinct, neither party being completely certain that the loser isn't destined to become the winner's lunch.

Matt Reed and Erin McGhee shine, literally and figuratively, as the play's reptilian couple, who are both fascinated and terrified by the world above the water. Their performances, enhanced in no small measure by Luke Hall's exceptional costumes, strike a perfect anthropomorphic balance between human and inhuman, sublime and ridiculous, as they plod across the soft beige topography of Christopher McCollum's set.

Seascape director Kyle Hatley is one of Memphis' most interesting young talents, but an alarming seriousness has penetrated his recent work. His Romeo and Juliet at Germantown Community Theater was conceptually brilliant but completely lacking the giddy joys of young love. As Nick in Circuit Playhouse's production of Virginia Woolf, Hatley seethed with so much actorly anger that his performance became accidentally comical. Like these previous efforts, Seascape has been robbed of its playfulness and made too heavy by half. Fortunately, much of Albee's comedy still shines through the dark storm clouds of Hatley's furrowed brow.

Seascape is often described as Albee's happiest play. It is also his most visually poetic. It's a meditation on every possible meaning of evolution, a term we use to describe the gradual changes that alternately hurry and postpone extinction. To that end, the play has less to do with aging (an obvious theme) and everything to do with mankind's coming-of-age as a species. And like all good coming-of-age stories, it's a balanced equation of sweetness and regret.

Seascape at Theatre Memphis through October 7th

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