A fitfully fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying hodgepodge of cryptic profundities, absurdist guessing games and droll vaudeville riffs, Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” emerges as a decidedly minor effort in its U.S. premiere staging at Houston’s Alley Theater. To be sure, any judgment of the production must come with a disclaimer: This is very much a work in progress. Albee reportedly has revised much of his play since its 1998 London world premiere, and completely rewrote the final scene just days before the Alley’s April 12 opening night. Additional tinkering is likely to follow. But that may not be enough.
Archetypal characters — identified simply as Boy, Girl, Man and Woman — interact on an appropriately spare set designed by E. David Cosier. (Two modular chairs and a bench represent an apartment, or maybe limbo, or whatever.) As the play begins, Boy (David Burtka) and Girl (Rebecca Harris), a young married couple, are basking in the joy of their new status as proud parents. Having a child has done little to dampen their sexual friskiness, and Boy takes great delight in suckling what he calls “dessert” after Girl nurses their baby. Even when a mysterious Woman (Marian Seldes) appears, they take little notice of her as they scamper naked hither and yon.
Festive mood darkens only briefly, when Boy recalls having his arm broken by high-school toughs several years earlier. Up until now, apparently, that’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to either him or his wife. But then a snake slithers into this Garden of Eden: Man (Earle Hyman), a dapper gent who, like Woman, arrives unannounced and takes center stage to directly address the audiences with anecdotes, observations and shaggy-dog yarns. Act one ends with Man’s announcement of their true intentions: He and Woman are there to “take the baby.”
The second act begins with another Manly riff, as the uninvited guest welcomes audience members coming back from intermission. (Here and elsewhere, Albee places great emphasis on having characters underscore the obvious — that “The Play About the Baby” is, indeed, a play.) Then, after a brief recapitulation of the first act’s finale, Man and Woman get down to brass tacks. They’re not there merely to abduct the baby — they intend to browbeat Boy and Girl into admitting that the baby doesn’t exist.
Ambiguous ending invites several interpretations, and it says much about the wildly uneven play’s ability to intrigue that many theatergoers will heatedly debate whether there really was a baby after all. (Anyone who’s ever seen Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” will readily jump to the conclusion that the infant did not exist.)
But, then again, perhaps it’s not so simple. One could argue that “Baby” really is about the traumatic shock of one’s first encounter with the worst that one can imagine. Boy and Girl are posited as innocents who, broken arms notwithstanding, cannot fathom what nasty tricks may be sprung upon them. And when people so ill-prepared really do have to cope with a devastating tragedy — like, say, the death of an infant child — the world can seem like a horrid place where the fates hammer you with as much unfeeling random cruelty as that displayed by Man and Woman. Maybe, just maybe, the only way to deal with such a loss is to deny it ever happened.
But, on the hand, perhaps that isn’t what Albee means at all.
In any event, “The Play About the Baby” often plays like something Albee stitched together while rummaging through old notebooks and figuring, “Hey, waste not, want not.” A few of the undeniably amusing monologues sound like stand-alone verbal doodles Albee could have written years (or even decades) ago. Boy and Girl could have been fleshed out from early drafts for Nick and Honey of “Virginia Woolf.” Intimations of unspoken dread of ineffable threats lurking just outside the door recall “A Delicate Balance.” There’s even a hint of the amphibious Leslie from Albee’s “Seascape” (which, by the way, is long overdue for a major revival) in Man’s rapid-fire vacillations between borderline buffoonishness and intimidating ferocity.
Don’t misunderstand: We’re not talking about “Edward Albee Plays His Greatest Hits” here. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to resist the temptation to connect the dots while considering this new play in the context of Albee’s career.
David Burtka and Rebecca Harris are physically attractive and emotionally engaging as Boy and Girl, earning respect for their complete lack of self-consciousness during the Alley production’s more revealing moments.
Earle Hyman hits the right balance — a delicate balance? — of courtly raconteur and unforgiving fate in his authoritative portrayal of Man. As the flamboyantly self-dramatizing Woman, Marian Seldes gives a performance that could be labeled “honey-baked” and sold by the pound, but that’s precisely what the role requires. It’s unfortunately distracting, however, that she’s made up and coiffured to accentuate her slight resemblance to Wayland Flowers’ Madame puppet.
The director serves the playwright very well in giving Seldes and Hyman ample license to charge the drama with alternating currents of humor and menace. Overall, however, the production fails to convey a sufficient sense of steadily escalating tension, and without that, the final scene lacks the tragic impact it requires. Some of the physical interplay between Burtka and Hyman definitely needs work. And a bit more pruning of the text wouldn’t hurt.