“You start and then you stop,” says one of Edward Albee’s three tall women in a simple summation of life, a summation the playwright may or may not truly believe. The winding down of a solitary existence certainly is the subject of his dauntless new play, but between the starting and stopping Albee packs enough complexity and nuance to give the lie to his character’s philosophical aside.
In fact, Albee’s play requires not one but three actresses to etch out the life of its central character, a wealthy matron burdened with the savage indignity of old age. “Three Tall Women” is an examination of her life — anyone’s life, really — from various and surprising perspectives.
Before taking an unexpected turn after intermission, the play proceeds conventionally enough. Three women are placed in a closed environment — the matron’s well-appointed bedroom, flawlessly designed by James Noone — and circle one another (mentally, at least) with the suspicion and fear reserved for those we can’t understand. The matron (Myra Carter), whose rambling, bitter reminiscences often fall short of lucidity, is tended to by a 50-ish caretaker (Marian Seldes), whose anger and frustration at her cranky, abusive employer is leavened by understanding and resignation.
Not so understanding is the third woman (Jordan Baker) — the characters are identified only by the letters A, B and C — a 26-year-old lawyer who has come to straighten out the financial and administrative mess that senility has wrought. With a brashness and lack of compassion that even her youth doesn’t quite explain, the lawyer has no patience for the old woman’s digressions, continually pointing out inconsistencies or bristling at the dying woman’s long-entrenched bigotries.
So complete is the lawyer’s intolerance that the caretaker, acting as a bridge between the two far-removed generations, continually reminds her of the looming inevitable. When the lawyer responds to a question with “There’s nothing the matter with me,” the caretaker can’t help drawling, “Well, you just wait.”
Youth has only to wait until Act 2 for further explanation. The first act closes when the old woman has a stroke, and the second begins with the sight of her in bed, comatose, her face covered by an oxygen mask. Enter the other two, now attired in dressy dresses vaguely suggesting other eras, chatting about death. They in turn are joined by the elderly woman, who strides onstage with a newfound mobility — the figure in bed is a dummy — and the audience soon realizes that the trio of actresses now are playing the matron at three stages of her life.
Albee seems to have great, occasionally cruel, fun with this premise, providing each “character” with all the dignity and indignity of their respective ages. Youth is both charmingly dreamy and maddeningly disdainful; the 52-year-old, while boasting that middle age is “the only time you get a 360 -degree view,” doesn’t like what she sees on either side; and the old woman is by terms resigned to and anguished by her disintegration.
If Albee gives short shrift to the youngest of the trio, particularly in the first act when the lawyer’s petulance borders on the implausible, the flaw is lessened by Baker’s appealing portrayal. And good as she is, she is outshone by both Seldes and Carter, whose performances are among the best Off Broadway has to offer right now. They are skillfully guided through the play by director Lawrence Sacharow, who, along with Baker and Carter, has been with the play since an earlier staging. The familiarity shows in the production’s easy flow.
Comparisons with Albee’s classic plays might be as inevitable as they are pointless. “Three Tall Women” should be judged on its own merits and the staging it’s received at the Vineyard, and by that standard it’s a winner.