If you didn’t know Edward Albee wrote “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox” almost a half-century ago, this revival at the Cherry Lane could pass for a very smart and very angry young man’s contemporary cri de coeur against the parents and culture that nurtured him. As directed by the 80-year-old playwright, in a style that skips past “The Simpsons” and goes straight to “Family Guy,” these cruel cartoons lambasting all-American family values feel surprisingly fresh — and alarmingly relevant.
The expressionistic style of “The American Dream” is immediately declared by a garish red-white-and-blue living room, designed by Neil Patel, that makes a mockery of American tastes in domestic decor. (That’s us, folks — bold and brash and god-awful ugly and damned proud of it.) Carrie Robbins’ vivid costume palette of primary colors follows suit, as does Nicole Pearce’s fearsomely bright lighting design.
Loud and vulgar is the message, and nobody does loud and vulgar funnier than Judith Ivey, who plays the monstrous Mommy. Ivey has what might be patented as “the Albee voice,” a vocal instrument so sharply honed and precisely pitched it can cut throats. Holding nothing back, she sizes up the opposition — her milquetoast husband (George Bartenieff), her feeble mother (Lois Markle), the snooty chairman of her social club, Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler) — and mows them down with some of the most sadistically funny lines ever heard onstage.
Explaining why she wants to put her mother in a nursing home, she blithely says, “I can’t stand it, watching her do the cooking and the housework, polishing the silver, moving the furniture.”
Goading Daddy into action, she taunts, “You’re turning into jelly; you’re indecisive; you’re a woman.”
And let’s not even go into the verbal (and physical) punishments she inflicts on the “bumble of joy” she and Daddy adopted and found so unsatisfactory that they are now demanding a replacement.
Albee is a master of language, turning the banalities of casual speech into lethal weapons of self-destruction. Bartenieff makes a pathetic fool of Daddy, so emasculated by Mommy he can only assert himself by mouthing the cliched phrases that define that lost masculinity.
Albee applies the same ironic twist to Mrs. Barker, so silly she’s sad in Butler’s manic perf. By mindlessly repeating the inane mantras of the busy-busy “professional woman” she fancies herself to be, this grand society dame reveals herself as a totally superfluous person.
Only feisty Grandma is granted some degree of humanity by virtue of her blunt views and frank idiom. But while her outrageous honesty about Mommy’s cruelty and Daddy’s impotence earn Grandma our sympathetic laughter, she wears it out by repeating herself endlessly on the humiliating indignities of old age.
At least she gets to die with dignity (“You got to have a sense of dignity, ’cause if you don’t have that, civilization’s doomed”) in “The Sandbox.” Although it predates “The American Dream” by a year, this brief sketch makes more sense as a coda, with its surreal — and quite creepy — image of Mommy and Daddy burying Grandma by the seashore before she is quite dead.
Whether taken separately or as a matched set, both of these early plays survive — to be rediscovered by every successive generation — because they are clearly more than glib social satires about adversarial relationships in one dysfunctional family.
Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and all their playmates may be cartoons, but on a mythic scale these greedy, grasping creatures embody the monstrous excesses of American cultural values. And Albee is not about to let us forget that, laugh as hard as we like, we are all playing in the same sandbox.