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Three Tall Women

Center Theater Group, by arrangement with Elizabeth I. McCann, Jeffrey Ash, Daryl Roth in association with Leavitt/Fox/Mages, presents a play in two acts by Edward Albee; director, Lawrence Sacharow; sets, James Noone; costumes, Muriel Stockdale; lighting, Phil Monat. Opened Jan. 11, 1996; reviewed Jan. 10; runs through Feb. 24. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. TX:Cast: Marian Seldes (A), Michael Learned (B), Christina Rouner (C), Michael Rhodes (The Boy). Sad and funny and exhilaratingly good, Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" at the Mark Taper Forum is a polished facsimile of the Off Broadway production, with Marian Seldes, a veteran of that production, moving gracefully from the secondary to the primary role. Her only activity is stoking a mild and comforting antagonism with her caretaker (Michael Learned), and a fresher and more virulent one with a young lawyer (Christina Rouner), who has come to clear up some problems with financial workings of her ample estate.

Center Theater Group, by arrangement with Elizabeth I. McCann, Jeffrey Ash, Daryl Roth in association with Leavitt/Fox/Mages, presents a play in two acts by Edward Albee; director, Lawrence Sacharow; sets, James Noone; costumes, Muriel Stockdale; lighting, Phil Monat. Opened Jan. 11, 1996; reviewed Jan. 10; runs through Feb. 24. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. TX:Cast: Marian Seldes (A), Michael Learned (B), Christina Rouner (C), Michael Rhodes (The Boy). Sad and funny and exhilaratingly good, Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” at the Mark Taper Forum is a polished facsimile of the Off Broadway production, with Marian Seldes, a veteran of that production, moving gracefully from the secondary to the primary role. Her only activity is stoking a mild and comforting antagonism with her caretaker (Michael Learned), and a fresher and more virulent one with a young lawyer (Christina Rouner), who has come to clear up some problems with financial workings of her ample estate.

In a chronic state of elegant, addled rage, she rails against her failing health, her failing memory and, more deeply, the great failures of her life, more vivid to her than the present.

Seldes, who played the caretaker Off Broadway, gives a commanding performance in the lead role. Age has broken down the woman’s control of her emotions; they fly to the surface and jostle for supremacy.

An impish cackle at the trouble she’s caused her nurse turns instantly into a shuddering anguish at her solitude. She whines childishly for her estranged son in one breath (“Will he come today? Is today the day he comes?”) and speaks with snarling disgust of him minutes later (“He loves his boys, those boys he has! He

doesn’t love me!”).

With unerring grace, Seldes rides the roller coaster of A’s emotions, from pathos to fury, from pride to despair; she is mesmerizing.

Learned brings a wry earthiness to her role as the nurse. Her

weary matter-of-factness is in contrast both to Seldes’ rampant emotionality and to Rouner’s hard-edged truculence as the lawyer, who is repulsed by A’s physical and moral lapses.

The young woman blanches at references to the elder’s incontinence, and huffs with disgust at her bigotry. The caretaker observes all with sympathy, and it is this contrast that sets the tone for the play’s second act, in which Albee brings to the fore the themes hinted at by the contrasting attitudes of these three women by making them all the same woman, at three different junctures in her life.

At 26, in a ’30s getup that is costume designer Muriel Stockdale’s only misstep (it makes too literal and too superficial her girlishness and youth), she is high-spirited and hopeful, and stares with tactless dismay at the visions of herself at 52 and 92 — women she can scarcely abide, let alone acknowledge as herself.

Babbling happily about her romantic hopes, she is brought down to earth by her companions’ sardonic asides about the dissolution of those dreams.

“How did I change?! What happened to me?!” she wails, facing her cynical older selves. And with deep insight into theworkings of time in human lives, Albee proceeds to reveal just how a vain, hopeful girl of 26 becomes a dissatisfied but resigned woman of 52, a woman of 92 who can speak with comfort of her impending death.

Though in Albee’s clear-eyed vision, the progress of life is not toward happiness — it’s a war waged with infidelity, sickness, disappointment and death — the play itself is shot through with humor and a vibrant emotion that makes it deeply satisfying.

Less a drama than a meditation in three keys, the play has been given rhythm by Lawrence Sacharow’s expert direction, as the women’s sparring in the first act turns to an elegiac harmony at the end.

Musing on the changes brought by age, the middle-aged woman speaks with satisfaction of her perspective on her past and the future before her. “It’s the only time you get a 360-degree view,” she says. “Wow! What a view.” That might describe the breadth of vision in the play itself. What a view, indeed.

Three Tall Women

(Mark Taper Forum, L.A.; 760 seats; $ 35.50 top)

Production: She plays an imperious woman of 92 (identified in the text only as A), trapped by age and infirmity in the chilly splendor of her bedroom, a vision of pale silk uphostery and antiques impeccably realized by designer James Noone.

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