The best of Connecticut’s legit season has been saved for last: With everyone involved working at their peak, Hartford Stage’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner reveals the play as one of the writer’s loveliest and funniest. The opening-night audience graced it with a steady stream of laughter of the best kind — of recognition, rapport, surprise and delight. Throughout, the script’s lyrical imagery shone forth as if newly minted.
Hartford Stage has had a long, rewarding relationship with Albee’s plays. The company presented the world premieres of “Listening” and “Counting the Ways” (with Angela Lansbury) in 1976, “Tiny Alice” in 1972 and “All Over” in 1975. Now former Hartford a.d. Mark Lamos has returned to the company to direct “Seascape,” having proved his affinity for Albee with his award-winning 1998 staging here of “Tiny Alice,” a production that later moved to New York’s Second Stage. (Although a Lamos staging of “Seascape” had been announced for Second Stage’s current season, this production is no longer on the company’s roster.)
Although two of its characters are lizardlike sea creatures, “Seascape” does not share the inscrutability of “Tiny Alice.” It’s one of Albee’s more straightforward plays, dealing with one couple mulling over the pros and cons of evolving out of the sea and the other weighing the options of retirement. It does not have the visceral power of some of Albee’s other works; rather, it has a watercolor lightness of touch and a musicality that Lamos and his cast have evoked with deft aplomb.
As Nancy and Charlie, the human couple facing old age, Pamela Payton-Wright and George Grizzard easily expunge any memories of others in their roles. And if Annalee Jefferies and David Patrick Kelly don’t eclipse Maureen Anderman and Frank Langella, who created the roles of the sea creatures Sarah and Leslie on Broadway, they are still very effective in their lizard bodysuits complete with spikes and lengthy tails, particularly the wide-eyed, unblinking Jefferies.
The play takes place on a spacious dune, exquisitely designed by Riccardo Hernandez as a sweeping hill of sand with a few rocks and tufts of sea grass. The sky above and behind is lit with sunny airiness by Mimi Jordan Sherin. A couple in late middle age have been picnicking on the dune, and the play opens with a monologue by Nancy (she’s the talkative one).
Throughout her career, Payton-Wright’s overemphatic vocal delivery has sometimes been wearing on the ear, but here she harnesses it as part of her characterization, and her performance is the finest this theatergoer has seen her give. As Charlie, Grizzard is equally fine in a quiet and wryly thoughtful way. He is the still point around which the play revolves, and he also has never been better. What’s particularly remarkable and touching is the way Albee, Lamos and these two actors delineate the deep lifelong love Nancy and Charlie share even when bickering.
Given that they have to perform within Constance Hoffman’s brilliantly designed, all-enveloping lizard suits, and often on all fours, Kelly and Jefferies also must be applauded as, in act two, after a wary, fearful first encounter, they and their human counterparts discuss evolution, bigotry, emotions, aerodynamics, etc. Conveniently, the sea creatures speak English, though they don’t understand certain words, including “love.”
The play ends with the humans encouraging the sea creatures not to return to the sea but to continue their evolution on land, with their help. “Seascape” even encompasses hope for the future.
Realizing that music per se would be redundant in any production of “Seascape,” Lamos hasn’t used any, relying instead on the script’s own music, thereby making the sound effects — the sound of the sea, noisy jets overhead and seagulls — all the more effective. It’s unlikely “Seascape” will ever receive a more expertly and lovingly realized production.