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The devil as Groucho Marx. That notion had never occurred to me, but it clearly had to Philip Goodwin. And happily, Edward Albee’s frequently but unsettlingly uproarious dramedy The Play About the Baby gave him an opportunity to make the idea briefly physical.
It’s just one gesture in a two-hour eveninga silly little backward kick to make the meddling Mephistopheles he’s playing more coquettish and appealing, the kick that Groucho employed to punctuate the ends of songs or play fey while faking a swoon into Margaret Dumont’s arms. Goodwin might as easily have chosen a Charlie Chaplin shuffle, but he didn’t, perhaps because there’s nothing disquieting about Chaplin. Something a little more feral, a little less innocent, is what’s called for here, and Groucho’s the go-to guy for that. Consider yourself warned.
Goodwin plays a character known only as Man in The Play About the Baby, and in his dark business suit and pink tie, he’s mostly charming the pants off audiences at the Studio Theatre, even as he’s plotting a disquieting surprise for the Boy (Matt Stinton) and Girl (Kosha Engler) who are the true innocents at the play’s center. A really nasty surprise, actuallythe kind that destroys lives and ends relationships. Still, you’d never guess from his demeanor that he’s anything other than benign as he chats amiably with the audience about the chore of parking the car, the relative size of theater bathrooms, the way memories fade, and the way we periodically need to “reinvent the future.”
The Woman who joins him (Nancy Robinette) has a pink scarf to match his tie, along with an equivalently pleasant way about her. “I’m not an actress,” she insists shortly after arriving on stage. “And I am not,” she adds with a slight shudder, “with the press.” The two of them share an almost pixieish quality. In fact, they seem in many ways simply to be more worldly versions of the oft-naked Boy and Girl who are so joyously chasing each other around their own private Eden elsewhere on the stage.
Still, there’s a difference. The youngsters, who’ve just had a baby and are entirely in its thrall, are all about sensation and discovery. Boy speaks of sex as if he were embarking on a physical journey across his partner’s bodyfrom “hot and moist jungle” up to “twin mountains.” Girl, for her part, is just discovering the joy and power of motherhoodquieting both Boy and their baby by nursing them at her breast. She’s game when he wants to try a new sexual technique (“It hasn’t been done for centuries….Three religions outlawed it in the middle ages”), but her focus is the baby. And when Boy isn’t marveling at the symmetry of her breasts, the baby is his focus, too.
“I wonder how much they love it,” murmurs the business-suited Man from the sidelines. “Maybe we should find out.” And from that disquieting moment to a quietly shattering conclusion, the evening is an unnervingif still often laugh-provokingabsurdist thriller about emotional terrorism and what one character calls “the color of loss.”
I’ve missed Edward Albeewhich is not to say that he’s been away, exactly. He’s been writing pretty steadily since his earlier play about the baby, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, firmly placed him in the front ranks of American dramatists in the ’60s. But over the decades, he’s been critically slighted and produced less and less in D.C., and his absence from local stages has had its costs. Audiences have become less attuned to drama that challenges without providing either catharsis or easy answers. Absurdism has been ceded to authors who can be more easily interpreted in political termsPinter, especially, but also Ionesco and Beckettand even in an age when politics verges regularly on the absurd, that’s a limited view of a remarkably flexible dramatic form.
As audiences were forcefully reminded last season at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s engrossingly perplexing Tiny Alice, Albee has few equals when it comes to wrapping theatergoers in mystifying conundrums and then sending them out into the night arguing about what the hell they’ve just seen. Tiny Alice, mind you, is famously one of this unconventional playwright’s least penetrable plays. Patrons will have an easier time at The Play About the Baby, if only because the author misses no opportunity to tell them flat out exactly what they’re seeing. “If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive?” wonders Man at one point. “I can take pain and loss later, when it comes as natural as sleep,” says Boy; “…Give us some time.” Nothing obscure about any of that, though simple clarity won’t reduce the post-theater arguments particularly. What it will do is give everyone the verbiage needed to pursue them.
Designer Russell Metheny has provided a neutral, rose-carpeted, Lucite-columned void on which it’s easy to imagine a whole raft of the playwright’s early one-acts being played out, and Joy Zinoman’s briskly comic, yet ultimately haunting, staging sends the performers ricocheting around and across it. Sometimes their dialogue smacks of vaudeville (“You have a baby…what kind?” “A small one”), sometimes of existentialism (“I have a troubling sense of what should be, rather than what is”), but always, there’s Albee’s trademark insistence on peeking behind cracking veneers, be they social or personal, and exposing the nagging doubts that plague us in good timesand terrify us in bad.
Dunno about terrorism, but somebody almost has to have put something in the District’s water supply lately. How else to explain the abrupt explosion hereabouts of musical comedy? With 1776 at Ford’s Theater, Follies about to open at Signature, and a touring 42nd Street at the National (not to mention the SRO run of Dames at Sea that just closed in Olney), D.C.’s theater scene is looking remarkably like an upstart cousin to Manhattan’s Great White Way.
And now a roof-raising Ain’t Misbehavin’ has settled in at Arena Stage. The show is, as those with long memories will recall, a 1978 “Fats” Waller revue that’s at least as long on personality as it is on music. Waller’s tunes”Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “This Joint is Jumpin’” “Honeysuckle Rose”are sublime, though arguably no better than the Duke Ellington or Eubie Blake melodies in Sophisticated Ladies and Eubie!, two other revues that ran roughly concurrently on Broadway.
What set the Waller show apart, and made stars of its original cast membersNell Carter shone brightest, but the others all became bankable on Broadwaywas the sizzle with which the songs got projected across the footlights. The template was formed with that first production: Two ample coquettes, one hyperactively skinny chorine, a Big Daddy, and a Sportin’ Life grinned and shimmied through numbers that ranged from the cozily seductive to the earthily amusing, making them funny, lively, and at every possible opportunity, suggestive. Raunch, of a sweetly nonthreatening Broadway type, was a key ingredient. The stage positively swam with hormones, and no moment was so minor that it couldn’t be subjected to directorial tweaking.
That’s still true in Ken Roberson’s flashily populist revival. Performers don’t just dance out to hit their marksthey sidle and skitter, strut and vamp. Gestures, head-snaps, even smiles are timed to the music. It sounds artificial, yes, but when managed with skill (and there’s plenty on display at Arena), it’s irresistible.
E. Faye Butler has the unenviable task of assaying numbers originally assigned to (and subsequently identified with) Carter, but she puts her own stamp on them in short order. The lady’s both a belter and a comedienne, and the two qualities come through with equal force in such numbers as “Cash for Your Trash” and “Lounging at the Waldorf,” the latter of which finds her attired by costumer Paul Tazewell in a hat that looks like a rejected Frank Lloyd Wright design for the Guggenheim. Slender, hyperkinetic Janeece Aisha Freeman spends much of the evening in comic overdrive, and she’s funny enough that the effect is captivating when she slows down to purr “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” as if channeling Eartha Kitt. Doug Eskew’s elegantly basso rumble is countered by a twinkle in his eye that seems to send up the sobriety he’s forever urging on Raun Ruffin and Amy Jo Phillips (who, happily, ignore him).
In short, the evening is a romp, and if the surfeit of musicals in town inevitably forces fans of the form to make choices, my advice in the matter is: Don’t miss ‘Behavin’. CP