A notorious Broadway flop in 1980, Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque” doesn’t exactly rise triumphantly from the ashes here. Despite its imaginative and terrifically theatrical personification of the Angel of Death as a regal matron from the American heartland (who sweeps in on the arm of a distinguished black man, no less), this metaphysical mystery is surprisingly shallow on the life-and-death issues it raises. In its handsome mounting by David Esbjornson, the play does, however, look absolutely stunning on the largest and grandest of the three stages at the new Signature Center.
The characters in this ill-defined piece are such dullards, they don’t deserve John Arnone’s elegant set of a modern suburban living room — a light and airy space, all clean lines and creamy tones, dominated by a sleek open staircase curving up to the second floor. This is a room designed for intelligent adults. But the six friends gathered here for drinks and party games all behave like children.
Sam (Michael Hayden), the host, is bullying everyone in a game of 20 Questions. “Who am I?” he insistently demands of his bored guests. So far, we’re in familiar Albee territory, where party games have weighty existential meaning.
Sam’s wife, Jo (Laila Robins), immediately understands his problem: “Poor man, he doesn’t know who he is.” But Jo doesn’t feel like playing games tonight because, as she bluntly announces early on: “I am dying.”
As the evening wears on, Jo’s impending death becomes more pressing, with Robins increasingly called upon to writhe in pain and shriek in agony, a demanding if rather thankless acting task that the actress carries off with dignity.
Despite Jo’s deteriorating condition, the games go on, making Albee’s critical point that people will ignore whatever makes them uneasy, unhappy, or uncomfortable. The innocuous Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his mousy wife, Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), make awkward social conversation. Fred (C.J. Wilson), a racist and a bully, concentrates on humiliating his dimwit girlfriend, Carol (Tricia Paoluccio).
Sam’s state of denial is far more acute than the simple, willful blindness of his insensitive guests. Hayden intensifies his angst to a point of desperation that’s quite painful to watch, although Albee doesn’t make it at all clear what Sam’s denials have to do with his own existential dilemma.
Thematic clarity has never been high on Albee’s dramatic to-do list, so nothing is really illuminated by the sudden, stunning appearance of Jane Alexander and Peter Francis James as Elizabeth, the mysterious lady from Dubuque, and her coolly intimidating escort, Oscar.
Looking positively regal in Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s dove-gray ensemble, Alexander sweeps aside Sam’s dithering objections and takes charge of Jo’s dying (a huge relief to everyone worn down by poor Jo’s suffering). But with Sam reduced to howling denials of Elizabeth’s mission of mercy, and all the other characters hustled offstage, Albee refuses to come up with the kind of stimulating cerebral showdown that might have sent us out of the theater praising his name.