Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2009
My invitation to my companion at Seascape read as follows: “Would you like to come with me to Hubbard Hall on Friday night to see Doug Ryan play a giant lizard?” This is how you can tell your real friends from the phonies. The ones who reply to that question with: “Sure, what time will you pick me up?” are the keepers.
There are giant lizards in Seascape. Giant, English-speaking semi-aquatic lizards. Two of them – a male, Leslie (Ryan) and a female, Sarah (Courtney King). There are also a couple of average long-married humans – well, as average as upper-middle-class WASP Americans get – Charlie (Richard Howe) and Nancy (Stephanie Moffett Hynds), facing retirement.
You will not be surprised to learn that playwright Edward Albee was at a low-point in his career and drinking heavily at the time he wrote and directed Seascape. You will be surprised to learn that he won his second Pulitzer for it.
Not that Seascape isn’t a good play – it is a refreshingly light and charming work from a playwright whose whole demeanor is dark and lowering. Looking at the photographs of Albee in the excellent 1999 biography by Mel Gussow, I was struck to see how infrequently he was caught smiling. He would smile if he saw Doug Ryan as a giant lizard.
Seascape started life in the mid-1960’s as an idea Albee had for a pair of short plays entitled Life and Death. Life became Seascape and Death became All Over. All Over was finished and performed first – to disastrous reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Seascape was the first of Albee’s major works that he directed himself. It had a lengthy period of out-of-town try-outs before opening on Broadway in 1975, during which Albee made radical changes to the script, cutting the work from three acts to two. In the current Hubbard Hall production directed by Laura Heidinger, whose performance as Sonya in TCHH's 2007 production of Uncle Vanya remains one of my favorites, there is no intermission between Acts I and II and the play flows seamlessly as a 90-minute piece.
The act Albee excised was the second, in which the lizards take the humans down into their underwater world, which leaves the play high and dry in more senses than one. We see things from the comfortable homocentric point of view. The lizards remain the outsiders, the others, who must evolve and adapt to our world. Charlie mentions that there were creatures who came up out of the ocean and then returned to it (ever looked at the finger bones of a whale?) I wish Albee had explored the possibility that the course of evolution might run that way again and that there were positive paths for life on earth to take that weren’t towards bipedal, air-breathing, high-tech human society.
But he doesn’t. Ultimately, Seascape is about what every Albee play is about – couples communicating. And here they communicate quite well. Comparisons have been made to Albee’s best-known work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because both plays center on a single meeting between two heterosexual couples, but really the similarity ends there. Albee has been quoted as saying that if he wanted Seascape to be a rehash of the themes in ...Virginia Woolf? he would have titled it Who’s Afraid of Two Green Lizards?
In contrast to the vituperative George and Martha, Charlie and Nancy are genuinely affectionate and committed to one another. They are also the parents of three very real grown-up children and doting grandparents. For the majority of Act I they sit on the beach and discuss the empty-nest post-retirement phase of their lives together, for which they have very different ambitions. The dialogue is delightfully normal and relatable. Driving home, my companion and I discovered we had both seen a lot of ourselves in Nancy, but we each saw our own husbands in Charlie, and we could not be married to two more different men. Which proves that most long-married folks will find something to identify with in this couple.
Howe is the master of playing the repressed, middle-aged WASP husband. It is easy for any other actor sharing the stage with Ryan to be overshadowed by his bold skills in physical comedy, but Howe is every bit Ryan’s equal in that regard, except that where Ryan’s physicality is painted in broad strokes, Howe’s is a portrait in miniature. Watch Howe at work and there will never be a time when his body isn’t telling you much more about the inner workings of the often laconic characters he plays than the lines the playwright has given him.
Hynds is an excellent match for him. They look every inch the perfect WASP couple entering retirement. Nancy is still a beauty, and obviously younger than Charlie by perhaps as much as a decade. While Charlie has had his career out in the world, much of Nancy’s life has been devoted to homemaking and child-rearing. She is not ready to sit and do nothing, go nowhere, for the rest of her life. When she speaks about the time when she was 30 and he was in a deep depression and she considered having an affair, you know she is signaling her current restless nature and warning Charlie to meet her at least half-way or else...
As Nancy and Charlie bicker and natter on the sands, a face suddenly pops over the sand dunes behind them. And it is a face unlike any you have seen before. Costume designer Karen Koziol deserves a standing ovation for her work, not just for the amazingly effective costumes that transform Ryan and King into giant lizards, but for the perfectly understated beach garb of Howe and Hynds.
I will not attempt to describe the lizard costumes, other than to tell you that my companion referred to them as “elegantly engineered.” I cannot write about this play without divulging that two of the characters are lizards, but I can keep how astoundingly that transformation is executed a secret. You HAVE to go and see for yourself.
Albee is absolutely clear that intended Leslie and Sarah to be as real as Charlie and Nancy: “Just as civilized in their own way, just as middle-class...Certainly Leslie and Sarah must be frightening and must very clearly be true lizards...[they] are a metaphor, but they must be as real as possible.”
Despite my joke earlier about Albee’s drinking, and Charlie’s insistence that Leslie and Sarah only appear because he and Nancy are dead from eating tainted liver-paste sandwiches, the lizard couple are very much alive and real. Heidinger, Ryan, and King have done a superb job of making them believable creatures. When I saw Ryan in the title role of The Elephant Man at TCHH in 2007 I thought how sore he must have been from holding his body in that distorted position for so many hours of rehearsal and performance, but this role trumped that completely. Ryan and King walk and move like lizards, maintaining a crouching, second-position plie stance while bipedal. On all fours, using the ballet turn-out and the bent knees of the plie, they are able to create the illusion that their limbs are rotated away from their torsos, in a true reptilian stance, rather than being centered beneath them, as is common in mammalian quadrupeds. It must hurt like hell. They do get to wear knee pads.
Albee is clear that Leslie and Sarah do not have externally visible sex organs, so Koziol has built ingenious gender makers into the costumes to differentiate male and female. And Heidinger and Albee give Ryan and King easily identifiable gender stereotypes for the characters. Leslie is impulsive and angry, quick to defend his territory, which includes Sarah. Sarah is calmer and therefore more open and inquisitive. Charlie and Nancy mirror these attributes.
So, was it wonderful fun to see Doug Ryan play a giant lizard? Hell, yes! Ryan delivers another profoundly comic performance that is simultaneously poignant and hilarious. But as I have made clear there is not a weak link in this cast. In the original Broadway production Frank Langella took home a Tony for his portrayal of Leslie, but he also earned the wrath of Albee and his castmates for hamming it up and stealing scenes in what should be an ensemble show. Heidinger and her cast keep things well balanced and the humor and pathos is well distributed among the players.
The opening night of Seascape was also the first public performance in Hubbard Hall’s new Black Box theatre in the Depot Building. Hubbard Hall Executive Director Benjie White was obviously deeply moved to see this long-held dream become a reality and in his curtain speech spoke with pride of the many hours volunteers and staff had invested in the space. It is a cozy space, seating about 58. It will function not just as a theatre but as an art gallery and “function room.” White said he is looking forward to sitting out on the loading dock (aka the deck) with a cup of coffee waiting for the train to come by, which you will be glad to hear only happens on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and not in the middle of the performance.
I consider TCHH's 1878 wooden opera house to be one of my favorite performance spaces in the whole universe (and I’ve been in a bunch of them) so I can’t say that this new space is an improvement, but it is a nice space and it works well for this production. It did get rather hot and stuffy in there as the performance progressed, but I think that was just an opening night glitch that will soon be worked out. It was one of those early spring nights when it was just too cold to keep the doors open but just too warm to keep them closed.Ah, spring in New England...
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of Seascape runs March 26 through April 19 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. The show runs 90-minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up. There is some sex talk, but its very mild. I just think younger kids will be bored listened to a bunch of old married people chatter for 90-minutes. Tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009