Monday, April 9, 2018

Three Tall Women and Anna Christie: Pulitzer Prize Winners

Glenda Jackson, Alison Pill and Laurie Metcalf in Three Tall Women. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, but the original production was off Broadway (at the Vineyard Theatre), and until Joe Mantello’s luminous new revival with Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill – in the roles created by Myra Carter, Marian Seldes and Jordan Baker – it has never been performed on Broadway. I saw the Vineyard show and liked it quite a bit, though I remember finding the writing in the second act rather theoretical and pre-arranged. In act one the three characters – one in her early nineties, one in her early fifties, and one in her late twenties – have specific, realist roles, despite the fact that Albee calls them A, B and C. A is a wealthy, fading widow, estranged until recently from her son, incontinent and subject to sudden tantrums, childlike behaviors and episodes of dementia. B is her caregiver, whose mordant humor buoys up her worn patience with A’s erratic conduct. C is an emissary from A’s lawyer’s office, summoned because C’s affairs are in deplorable order. But in act two the old woman has had a stroke and lies unconscious in her bed while A, B and C embody her as an ingénue, as middle-aged and as a dowager, the two older women warning the youngest one, with a mixture of wisdom and perhaps a little sadistic glee, what she’s in for.

The original, directed by Lawrence Sacharow, had an intermission; Mantello has dispensed with it. I can’t tell how much influence that decision has had on maintaining the quality of the first act through the second – or, conversely, whether it turns out to be such a good choice because the production is so mesmerizing that we feel it would have been a mistake to take a pause in the middle. In any case, despite Albee’s varied approaches toward the subject matter in the first and second acts, in this Three Tall Women you experience the play holistically. I usually find Albee’s version of theatre of the absurd fussy, self-conscious and overwritten, but Three Tall Women is an exception and, it’s clear through this production, a glorious one. (The other exceptions, for me, are The Zoo Story, right at the beginning of his career, and his 1975 Seascape.) The dialogue is witty, in the comedy-of-manners style he favored;  the examination of the disintegrating matriarch, who is alternately solipsistic, pathetic, uproarious and insightful, is moving and dense without feeling heavy. It’s a masterful feat of dramatic writing.

The main reason most New York theatregoers would want to catch Three Tall Women, of course, is the chance to see Glenda Jackson, who retired from acting to pursue a political career in England in 1992 and returned to it only three years ago, first in a radio play and then as King Lear at the Old Vic. I didn’t see her Lear (alas), but I can now report that, on the cusp of turning eighty-two, she hasn’t lost an iota of her celebrated technique. In fact, there may not be another actress alive except Maggie Smith and Judi Dench who can get more musicality or dynamic range out of a line of dialogue. Jackson’s performance is purely magnificent, so dizzyingly accomplished that it’s like watching a high-wire artist pulling off breathtaking acrobatic tricks, one after another, long past the point you imagine anyone could keep the display going. She’s also unexpectedly raucous – unexpectedly because I can’t think of a single one of her many film performances that ever permitted her to get really down and dirty. In one scene, she describes her husband’s efforts to get her to fellate him by presenting her with a bracelet slung around his penis, and her wry commentary on the disappointing size of his organ as well as her general distaste for that particular sexual act made the audience I saw the play with howl with laughter. Albee knew exactly what he was doing here, of course, giving a graphic sexual speech to one of his trademark WASP queens, written to be played by an actress of Jackson’s stature. The very quality that could sometimes be exasperating when she was in her prime – the technical perfectionism that could be chilly and remote – makes her ideal for this role. In effect, she parodies it.

Laurie Metcalf’s slightly neurotic sort of clowning and her peerless sense of absurdity play brilliantly off Jackson’s high-comic style; the fact that Metcalf is as quintessentially Yankee as Jackson is quintessentially British enhances the contrast. I’ve always liked Metcalf (though I couldn’t figure out what the hell she was doing in A Doll’s House, Part 2) but I’ve never found her funnier, even in her first go-round on Roseanne from the late eighties through the late nineties. In the least developed of the three roles Alison Pill, an actress I’ve never thought much of, manages to keep up with her auspicious companions. The great Ann Roth has costumed the trio elegantly, especially in the second half. Miriam Buether’s superb set, which takes on a dazzling mirror effect in act two, is lit by Paul Gallo; it brought to mind Michael Yeargan’s legendary design for Six Characters in Search of an Author at American Repertory Theatre in the mid-eighties.  The designers have collectively come up with the most beautiful visuals I’ve seen on Broadway all season, and Mantello’s staging showcases their work as well as the work of his actors. One of my colleagues likes to say that we keep going to the theatre because when we see something spectacular it’s like heroin – we return over and over again in the hope of recapturing that ineffable high. This play and this production gave me my fix for the 2017-2018 season.

Dan Whelton Linsey McWhorter in Anna Christie. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Eugene O’Neill wrote Anna Christie in 1921; he was only thirty-three but it earned him his second Pulitzer. It’s not one of his great plays, though, and it’s seldom revived, which is the reason I made sure to get to the new production at Boston’s Lyric Stage. (I saw it last at the Roundabout Theatre in 1993, with Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson.) The handful of people who are familiar with the material probably know it from the 1930 movie with Greta Garbo – her first talkie and far from her best, though her presence is, as always, hypnotic.

The play is a melodrama, but its compassionate depiction of the titular heroine is distinctive. Sent by her widowed sailor father, Chris Christopherson, to live with cousins on a Minnesota farm when she was a little girl, she was raped by one of them and wound up in a whorehouse in St. Paul. When the play begins, she has just recovered from a bout in the hospital and comes to live with her father, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years. He works on a coal barge and lives there with his hard-drinking girlfriend Marthy; having no idea of his daughter’s sexual history, he throws Marthy off the barge to provide a good impression of his lifestyle when Anna arrives. He doesn’t learn the truth about his daughter until a handsome Irish stoker named Mat Burke romances her and asks her to marry him. Chris, who feels his whole life has been blighted by the sea, doesn’t want to see his daughter stuck in a marriage to a sailing man, but it’s she who turns Mat down because she’s ashamed of her past. When she finally owns up to it in front of both men, Mat acts exactly as she predicted: he feels badly used and gets angry and violent. Here O’Neill drew on his profound understanding of Irish men of his generation, with their obsession with dividing women into whores and madonnas (think of Jamie Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night and his older counterpart in A Moon for the Misbegotten). What’s remarkable is that depicts Mat with understanding while making Anna completely sympathetic.

Scott Edmiston, who directed Anna Christie for Lyric Stage, has also adapted it, which mostly means that he’s trimmed it (a good thing) and that his casting of African American actors, Lindsey McWhorter and Johnny Lee Davenport, as Anna and Chris allowed him to get rid of Chris’s Swedish accent. (O’Neill had a tin ear for dialect; many of Chris’s lines sound like they were written for a vaudeville act.) He would have been well advised to get rid of more of the old man’s fist-waving imprecations to “that old devil sea,” which eventually drew giggles from the audience. Edmiston has also taken some small liberties with the language, and when Anna says “bullshit" it takes you straight out of the play, just as it does when contemporary writers add profanities to Chekhov or Ibsen. Edmiston might have used some common sense: when Anna says “hell” her father complains that’s no way for a young lady to talk, but he doesn’t mind her saying “shit”?

His adaptation is less problematic than his direction, which is very clumsy. The actors – including Dan Whelton as Mat, Nancy E. Carroll as Marthy and James R. Milord as Larry, the bartender who pours that famous whiskey for Anna in the opening scene – seem to have left largely to their own devices, especially in terms of physicality, and the dialogue scenes haven’t been worked through in terms of the characters’ objectives, so there’s a lot of yelling and general histrionics and little dramatic shape. I don’t think anyone could have done much with Davenport, who’s phony in every scene, but the others might have been able to give decent performances with better (firmer) direction. McWhorter has her moments, especially in act one; by act two you’ve pretty much seen everything she’s got. The set, made up largely of wooden slats, is by Janie E. Howland, and it’s perfectly serviceable. Karen Perlow designed the lighting, which is evocative and constantly interesting.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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