Terrorism as entertainment! That’s the most disturbing surprise of Edward Albee’s endlessly disturbing and surprising “The Play About the Baby,” which is making its long-overdue New York premiere in a simultaneously trenchant and tender production directed by David Esbjornson.
The terrorists here are an extraordinarily refined pair, Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, wielding not bombs and bullets but the exquisite wordplay of Albee at his wisest. Their victims are another couple, a pair of callow young lovers positively pink with pleasure at their new parenthood.
We are in Albee territory, so no prizes for guessing which team emerges triumphant in this duel between innocence and experience — particularly with cherished stage veterans Murray and Seldes giving career-peak performances on the side of experience. The big surprise is that the audience, too, gets tear-gassed by the end of this frequently funny and ultimately devastating battle of wills, which is unquestionably the main event of the Off Broadway season.
We first meet the juvenile half of the play’s cast. On a crisp and clever set by John Arnone that suggests an oversized, Edenic playpen (a giant pacifier is the funniest touch), David Burtka and Kathleen Early, playing characters identified only as Boy and Girl, get things off to an oddly blunt start. “I’m going to have the baby now,” she blandly announces, and promptly walks offstage. The girl’s screams and a baby’s cries are heard. She returns, mission accomplished. “It’s the miracle of life,” says he, tritely.
Indeed, these two kids are not scintillating conversationalists. He’s a bundle of priapic energy, an overgrown baby himself who demands to be breast-fed when the baby’s done. The girl happily indulges him; she, too, is all surface sexuality and untrammeled instinct, prone to saying, with an innocuous smile, things like, “When you let me lick your armpits I almost faint, I really do.”
The crudeness of their dialogue is no lapse on the part of Albee; it’s part of his strategy. (Some of the initial flatness in the cherubic Burtka’s and Early’s performances may likewise be part of the director’s.) After their baby talk and eager sexual romping, how welcome is the arrival of Murray and Seldes, playing characters denoted only as Man and Woman. They are much better company, as sophisticated as the boy and girl are puerile.
He’s in a handsome double-breasted suit; she’s chic in shocking pink. They might have walked in off the street, these two, on their way to dinner at Union Square Cafe. And their conversation matches their attire: It’s smart and well-cut. Murray, a hand idling suavely in his pocket, his glorious voice dripping unction and urbanity, addresses us with a casual, conspiratorial air: “Have you ever noticed when you’re talking to someone you should know, but don’t, at a cocktail party, say, and you try to lead the conversation to remind you who they are — who you’re talking to — they won’t do it? They won’t let you go there?” A ripple of knowing laughs rises from the audience, and we’re in the palm of his hand.
He soon hands us off to the magnificent Seldes. “I am a trifle theatrical,” she says in her opening monologue. “And no apologies there.” None needed! Seldes’ ample talents — her mischievous comic instincts, her supple sense of language, her elegant bearing, the hint of sublimated sensitivity in her imperiousness and, yes, that outsized theatricality — all are deployed to extraordinary effect here. It’s a dazzling performance that would overwhelm the production were it not being matched and checked by the wise ministrations of Murray, her partner in crime.
The crime in question is a heinous one, more disturbing for the winking, offhand manner with which it is carried out. At the end of the first act, after these two matched pairs have sparred a bit, the truculent young boy demands to know what the older couple’s purpose is. “Well, it’s really very simple,” the man answers. “We’ve come to take the baby.”
Take it they do, with a matter-of-factness that is Albee’s typically clear-eyed comment on the horrors of life. But he’s up to much more here, too: “The Play About the Baby” is about the loss of innocence, one of the great themes of art, and it may never have been addressed with such boldness and yet such sensitivity onstage before.
As the play gathers force in the second act, the performances of Burtka and Early come into their own: The young couple’s juvenile complacency gives way to an uncomprehending pain expressed with such clarity and poignancy that it’s agony to watch. The boy plainly pleads for mercy: “Have you come to hurt us? Beyond salvation? … Ask why! Ask what we’ve done. I can take pain and loss and all the rest later … But … now? Not now. We’re happy; we love each other. … Give us some time.”
“Time’s up,” comes the Man’s crisp, devastating reply.
In the play’s original London production, a brilliant but colder Howard Davies staging that is — miraculously! — bettered here, the text seemed more oblique and willfully obscure; here, for all its vaudevillian diversions and seemingly pointless digressions, it’s clear and sharp as a knife, and full of subtle correspondences.
The play’s oddnesses and baroque structure mirror the haphazard patterns of life, after all. An awakening to life’s cruelties is rarely a linear process; it takes its mysterious course while we’re idling away what we assume to be our eternal youth. Who knows when innocence went, or how — or indeed why? The play distills this sad process without betraying its irrationality, while turning it into a strange and freewheeling sideshow full of bizarre digressions. (Seldes’ fake sign language all but brings down the house.)
If it’s fundamentally about loss, “The Play About the Baby” also is about survival, how we “get through it all,” as the Man says, when we are exiled from the Eden of immaturity and alive to life’s lacerating ways. In the surreal, electrifying give and take between the two couples in the second act, the man and the woman seek to convince the boy and girl that there was no baby at all.
Another cruelty? On the contrary, an act of strange mercy. Allusions to reality and illusion are frequent in the play, and, combined with the presence of an unseen baby, comparisons to Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” naturally spring to mind. While Albee’s earlier play ends with the stripping away of comforting illusions, “Play About the Baby” concludes with the manufacturing of them.
The audience cannot take refuge in illusion, of course, and the tear-streaked faces of Burtka and Early will linger long in the memory. But we know, as the Man and the Woman do — and the Boy and Girl will one day learn — that even suffering brings rewards. “Wounds, children, wounds,” says the Man in the final moments. “If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive?” Albee’s play, revealed here to be among his very finest, proves the point: It is a deeply painful experience, but, like all great art, it leaves you feeling more alive.