In the preface to his 1960 one-act play The American Dream, Edward Albee famously decried a minority of critics who had deemed the content of his absurdist play “nihilist, immoral, defeatist.” It’s hard to imagine a time when the content of The American Dream threatened some people; nearly 50 years later the play seems quaint and a bit dated. The Cherry Lane Theatre has invited Mr. Albee, who recently turned 80 years old, to direct the current pairing of the The American Dream and the related The Sandbox. The American Dream is nowhere near as shocking today as it might have been a half-century ago, and that absence of shock to a contemporary audience takes some of the teeth out of this production, which is, as Albee insists, tenaciously true to the text.
The story of The American Dream goes like this: “Mommy” has married “Daddy” for his money. Daddy and Mommy have reluctantly permitted “Grandma” to live with them, albeit under the sink. The ageist Mommy keeps the sassy Grandma (think Vicki Lawrence in Mama’s Family) in check by threatening to call the “Van Man” on her and put her out to pasture once and for all.
Grandma, however, has her own ideas. Having won a lot of money in a baking contest, she plans to make a run for it. In the meantime, Daddy and Mommy have forgotten why they have invited Mrs. Barker from the adoption agency to their home. Grandma explains, however: apparently they weren’t happy with the child they “bought” 20 years before and are seeking “satisfaction” by getting a replacement. The replacement is a shallow, damaged young man that Grandma calls “The American Dream.” And, yes, it appears that Mommy and Daddy killed the first child, but this fact is explained so obtusely in the play that it comes nowhere near the “startling tale of murder and morality” that the current press release promises.
Yet, it’s a treat to witness how Albee meant these plays to be seen. Though Albee introduced the notion of the absurd to popular American theater, his direction of The American Dream imbues the characters with a humanity that’s not apparent if one simply reads the play. In the production, we actually feel empathy for the doddering Daddy (played by George Bartenieff) rather than viewing him as the mechanical servant he seems to be in the book. Judith Ivey’s Mommy, obsessed with social status and getting “satisfaction,” is more vulnerable under Albee’s direction. Both Bartenieff and Ivey appear to play their characters as straight as possible.
However, because they do come across as more human in this production, the absurdness of the play and its dialogue sometimes get in the way and result in misfires. For instance, when Mrs. Barker (the excellent Kathleen Butler, whose judicious use of facial expressions saves her character) suddenly yanks her dress off to get more comfortable in the family’s living room, it’s simply incongruous because to that point the production has not felt surreal enough to support that action.
Other aspects of the production were slightly disappointing. Lois Markle as Grandma is a last-minute replacement for Myra Carter, who took ill before the production. Markle was a bit unsure of some of her lines — this might be overlooked in other productions, but Albee's work demands precision timing. At one point, she hesitated quite noticeably. When she finally came through with the correct line I was momentarily tempted to high-five the woman sitting next to me.
In a recent American Theatre interview, Albee opined candidly that the 13-minute The Sandbox is the closest he has ever come to a perfect piece; he states that, had he gone on five minutes longer, he probably would have made a mistake.
In The Sandbox, Mommy and Daddy are back and this time they’re sending Grandma off to her death. They bring her to a beach where they deposit her in a sandbox, and wait, with the help of a cellist, for the moment to arrive. A buff young man performing calisthenics on the beach is revealed to be a somewhat insecure Angel of Death, come to take Grandma away. His exercises mimic the flapping of wings and Nicole Pearce’s lighting is sublime. This is where Albee’s use of the absurd works completely. Albee is right. Even 50 years later The Sandbox remains a nearly perfect piece.