A lot of people are going to be mystified by “The Play About the Baby,” the new Edward Albee play now receiving its world premiere in London, but if there’s any justice, at least an equal number will be mesmerized as well. Witty, cryptic and finally very disturbing, the play is essential (if minor) Albee that shows a major American dramatist — now age 70 — continuing a career of experimentation that has always been very European in its absurdist embrace and subsequent disregard for naturalism. Whatever its ellipses, the new work is thrillingly served by its Almeida Theater quartet, who find the wrenching emotion in what could be highly self-conscious and arch.
After all, it’s not every play that matches so perfectly Alan Howard’s especially peculiar idiosyncrasies. This actor’s sepulchral musings, at once ominous and vaguely camp, cast a chill over a sometimes very funny evening that may well leave an attuned audience quaking, as well.
In outline, the play sounds (and, in a Xeroxed script whose ending follows on intriguingly from the one actually performed, reads) like an extended riff on Albee’s career-making “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” especially that play’s haunting closing litany of “yes” and “no.” A similar incantation here brings to a finish a play whose four characters could be abstracted — and, in the case of the so-called Boy and Girl — more youthful variants on the earlier work’s two sets of dueling couples.
As the new play opens, Boy (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Girl (Zoe Waites) have indeed had a baby (we learn in passing that it’s a daughter) whose arrival has in no sense dampened the young newlyweds’ rampant physical ardor. While they chase one another around the stage in various states of undress, they are visited by Man (Howard) and Woman (Frances de la Tour), an initially comical duo whose intention becomes clear at the close of the first act: They have come to take away the baby.
Act two begins with a recapitulation of the end of the first act, preceded by some quizzing of the audience about the “interval” (or intermission) that breaks the fourth wall rather more swiftly than the older pair break down the confidence of the young couple. As the senior couple continues its fierce pursuit of the baby, the child’s existence, inevitably, comes under discussion.
“The baby is real, the baby is ours,” says Boy, though you don’t have to have seen “Virginia Woolf” to find yourself thinking she may well not be. What matters, though, isn’t the illusory nature of the child: Far more palpable is the power of negation to which all the characters, even the reluctant Boy, gradually succumb, as if whatever the baby represents — innocence, hope, life itself — were revealed to be a sham. (It’s no accident, by the way, that the Man makes a point of defining what is meant by “a baby.”)
To that end, then, “The Play About the Baby” is of a piece not just with “Virginia Woolf” but with the entire career of a playwright who has never shied away from voicing life’s unspeakable fears. (They hover pregnantly around the decorous edges of “A Delicate Balance.”)
Those wanting a plot will be frustrated, even as deconstructionists have a field day with a play that, as the title suggests, can be said largely to be about itself. But what separates the evening out is its absolute theatrical life in a production from Almeida associate Howard Davies that marks easily this director’s finest staging at this address, his unevenly cast “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1996 (with Diana Rigg) included.
Davies was at his best guiding Penry-Jones in his first leading part in last year’s National Theater revival of Arnold Wesker’s “Chips With Everything,” and this rising young actor shines again here, his exuberance giving way to the tremulous realization that life’s comforts — sex included — may just be a shell. (In his spasms of fear, Penry-Jones suggests that the 23-year-old Boy may be the play’s true baby. He’s also an embryonic Nick, of “Virginia Woolf,” if ever there was one.)
All four actors are first-rate as they roam a set by Tim Hatley as simple and bare as his designs earlier this year for another Alan Howard production, the National’s “Flight,” were grand.
Forever undercutting the younger pair’s powerful bond, Howard’s Man offers a cunning variant on the grimly quizzical inventor he played several years back in the National’s “Les Parents Terribles”: His offhand “or whatever” in act two makes plain the extent to which the characters’ own histories — the Man speaks of having been black — are as up for grabs as the existence of the baby. (As he says later, “We don’t know what to disbelieve.”)
And while Waites makes something chilling out of the Girl’s eventual denial of her child, de la Tour’s Woman woos with the most audience-pleasing part. An alumna of the London debut of Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” the ever-sardonic de la Tour presents a malaprop-prone standup comedienne who breaks into a highly un-PC sign language routine that should make particularly interesting viewing on Sept. 23, when the play has a sign-interpreted performance.
Still, it’s characteristic of Albee’s strategy that the Woman’s bursts of levity don’t soften the blow of a play whose danger signals are apparent from the Boy’s opening recollection of an attack that — like many of the play’s abundant stories — is woundingly referred to again in act two.
“Time’s up,” snarls the Man, as indeed it is for all the characters, no matter how vibrant they seem at the start. Not for the first time, Albee leaves us staring into the abyss, which may be part of the reason finally why “The Play About the Baby” seems so adult.