Blond wood floor, glass staircase, recessed lighting, bookcases built into stone-colored walls with double-height windows… Hildegard Bechtler’s elegantly architectural set has an effective, almost wholly unadorned simplicity. The same, alas, cannot be said of the acting in Anthony Page’s effortful revival of Edward Albee’s not so much rarely as barely seen “The Lady from Dubuque.” The exception is Maggie Smith, who arrives in the last minute of the first act and then dominates the second. Yet even the magnetically watchable Smith cannot save the evening as a whole.
Much has been made about the title character. She appears, unidentified and uninvited in the well-to-do home of Sam (Robert Sella) and Jo (Catherine McCormack), guides terminally ill Jo toward death but leaves with her action and motives unexplained.
Despite being clad in an inexplicably poorly cut navy blue dress and jacket, Smith’s sphinx-like interpretation of the title role makes a captivating case for the character. Wise and commanding in everything but her American accent, which puts in merely an occasional guest appearance, Smith’s droll perf proves that the enigma of the Lady’s personality is simply not a problem. Identity, as Albee argues from the outset, is not the point.
The play’s real difficulty lies with the strain — in every sense — of artificiality in the writing. Locked beneath the barbed surface, there’s an unblinking examination of death, its painful anticipation, the difficulties of actually dying and the devastation of its aftermath. But Albee fails to give his theme consistent dramatic life.
His rejection of literal, uninflected naturalism has often worked to his advantage, notably in his recent hit “The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?” which returned bold and powerfully effective metaphor to the stage.
Here, however, his formal experimentation with theatrical identity remains arch and self-consciousness. Characters constantly deliver asides to the audience which are usually overheard by the other actors. Initially intriguing, it’s rarely, if ever, anything more than a device to underline theatricality.
More problematically still, Albee’s linguistic dexterity — he loves language as much as ideas — cannot paper over the cracks in his construction. The expository first act drags because it fails to do much but present three bickering couples tearing old friendships and new relationships apart. Nor does Albee make life easy for himself. His couples are types, not fully realized characters.
The host is not accidentally named Sam (guess what, we’re in America), and the cast runs to a self-confessed “redneck,” a self-styled “dumb brunette” and Oscar (amusingly supercilious Peter Francis James), the black character whose skin color embarrasses everyone but Elizabeth, aka the Lady.
Overly generalized perfs vitiate the problem still further. As Lucinda, Vivienne Benesch is so busy playing primly reproving that we never see why she has remained dying Jo’s best friend. Nor is she plausibly married to her bland husband, played with distracting prissiness by Chris Larkin.
Most of the performances operate from the surface. The impression is of actors displaying their wares, responding in pre-planned ways (too early in some instances) rather than listening afresh. A terrifyingly gaunt McCormack is convincing as pain-wracked Jo, but even she is a victim of inconsistency with sudden leaps across the stage.
Given that auds have been made to feel nothing but superiority to the characters through most of the first act, Sella has the toughest job trying to win sympathy for increasingly distraught Sam. Unfortunately, what registers most strongly is the actor’s effort in emoting because Page doesn’t pace him. We witness the end result — fury, anguish — but are not taken on the journey.
The play’s 1980 Broadway premiere famously closed after 12 performances. Smith’s casting will doubtless ensure a longer run in London. And with U.S. actors making up over half the cast and New York producers on board, the production is clearly aiming to continue Broadway’s Albee renaissance. But in this case, the playwright’s ambition outstrips his achievement.