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Those who’ve worried that Terrence McNally’s Master Class might prove too slight to charm the Pulitzer committee can take heart from the Eisenhower Theater’s latest tenant. Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women won the panel’s endorsement last year, and while its wisecracking, absurdist take on aging is great fun, it hardly qualifies as deep. A romp for its actresses, and for patrons who’ve been craving literate stage badinage, it’s a three-dimensional version of Gail Sheehy’s self-knowledge tome, Passages.
Its characters include a fierce, ninetysomething society matron (Marian Seldes), who is approaching senility with a singular lack of grace. Testy, vicious, racist, and forgetful, she has a broken arm and a sense of values to match. Because she’s rich, she knows she can rail with impunity at the bisexual son who visits too infrequently, the bankers she’s sure are bilking her, the social forces that altered her social station, the lovers who never satisfied her, and on and on. That she’s inconsistent doesn’t bother her in the slightest. That she’s unable to keep straight who she’s carping about does.
Her paid companions are a matronly, patronizing nurse (Michael Learned) and a childish, 26-year-old lawyer (Christina Rouner), neither of whom identifies much with her cranky employer. The young lawyer either sneers or hides her discomfort behind a bleeding heart (“It must be awful, the loss of dignity”), while the nurse buffers herself through cleverness and cynicism (“It’s downhill from 16 on for all of us”). As they spar their way through the first act, the three women seem every bit as different in temperament as they are in age.
Then, just before intermission, the old crone suffers a stroke and the play’s terrain changes. When the lights come up on the second act, her comatose body lies motionless in bed, but the three-way discussion goes on, transformed into an internal dialogue with the three actresses playing the dowager at different points in her life. Rouner’s sneers now seem to presage Learned’s cynicism, which, in turn, leads logically to Seldes’ bitterness.
Albee has said in interviews that the play’s protagonist is based on his mother, with whom he had a trying relationship, and that writing Three Tall Women helped him to “come to terms with the difficult life she led and develop a little respect for her independence.” That it didn’t make him any fonder of her would be clear enough from the writing, even if he didn’t keep trashing her in interviews. Still, while the character may be a monster, as the details of affairs gone flat and a marriage gone bitter leak out, you get a sense of how her monstrousness came to be.
Lawrence Sacharow’s crisp staging allows Seldes to have a crowd-pleasing field day, cackling and hawklike with bloody talons forever outstretched, as she makes the old woman vulgar in the first act and frosty in the second. Perhaps because Seldes played the nurse in the play’s off-Broadway engagement, the frostiness appears to develop quite specifically from a chill that creeps into Learned’s portrayal, as heartbreak over a soured marriage and fury at her son become forefront issues for the character. The connection to Rouner’s bimbette is more tenuous, because the youngest character is the weakest of the three as written. Rouner is more persuasive as the second half’s worried dilettante than as the first half’s uptight lawyer (she’s not nearly circumspect enough), which means the performance grows on you.
Fans of Albee’s pre-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf absurdism will note that his leading character’s senility allows the author to give a logical context in the first act to dialogue that might have been lifted wholesale from Zoo Story or The American Dream. Non sequiturs pile up hilariously as the dowager forgets what she’s talking about and threatens her caretakers. Her whimpering about her failing body and mind sounds many of the same notes Grandma did in The Sandbox as she fretted over being abandoned by Mommy and Daddy.
The second half might almost be seen as a symbolic rendering of Albee’s later career: the struggle toward self-knowledge after a stroke (in Albee’s case a stroke of good fortune—with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—from which he’s still recovering creatively). Certainly it allows the actresses to deepen their portrayals, turning brittle archetypes into the rounded characters of the playwright’s later work. Yes, as it contemplates the road from youth to ultimate oblivion, it’s less rousing than the giddily absurdist first half. But as a revealing, theatrically satisfying showcase for some remarkable acting talents, it’d be hard to top.
Not impossible, though. For instance, it might be interesting to watch Seldes, Learned, and Rouner tackle Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov’s classic about a family on the road to oblivion. (Historical digression: Seldes did play eldest sister Olga once, back in 1969 at Stratford, Conn., under the direction of then-tyro, now-Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Michael Kahn.) Having played variations on a single instrument in Three Tall Women, the actresses might well be able to find the quasi-musical undercurrents in the drama that Studio Theater’s current production tries so hard to tap into.
Director Joy Zinoman begins Three Sisters to the orderly sounds of Chopin, and as the Prozorov family’s prospects dim, graduates to the more cacophonous strains of Stravinsky. Her staging travels a similar arc, from the mannered politeness of a first act in which both family and society are intact, to the almost farcical spectacle of a fourth act that finds the Prozorov sisters ready to kill their bourgeois sister-in-law, and the army brigade abandoning them all in the rural backwater they so despise.
In Russell Metheny’s lovely rustic setting, unpainted plywood stands in surprisingly well for bleak Russian skies, while Helen Q. Huang’s bright costumes provide a cheery counterpoint to the pining away everyone does for “Moscow, Moscow, Moscow.” The staging (helped along by Richard Nelson’s conversational translation) imbues a script usually rife with suffocating sighs with a liveliness patrons may not immediately associate with Chekhov. The problem is, it does so by giving the performers such free rein that they sometimes seemed at the final preview to be inhabiting entirely different productions. Sarah Marshall plays the interloper Natasha as if Nicky Silver had written her mood-changes, leaping in midsentence from insincere sweetness to bellowing ferocity. Nancy Robinette’s 19th-century Olga is affecting when her face contorts with grief at an unintentionally cruel compliment, but she’s generations removed from the modern flibbertigibbet Isabel Keating makes of younger sister Irina. And when Anna Bergman’s middle sister Masha starts trilling in a gorgeously trained voice at Ed Gero’s unhappily married (and quite nicely played) colonel, she seems momentarily to have stumbled across a script from A Little Night Music.
What with Jon Tindle reprising the squawking and wing-flapping he did last season in The Swan to establish that Capt. Solyony is socially inept, while Brion Dinges plays the ineffectual Andrei in an altogether more naturalistic mode, listening for the musicality of Chekhov’s silences is pretty much a lost cause. In fact, it’s harder to track the verbal harmonies and dissonances of Chekhov in Nelson’s comparatively faithful translation than it was in Mustapha Matura’s freely adapted Trinidad Sisters a few seasons ago at Arena.
You’ll want to Rush, not walk, to catch Charlie Varon’s uproarious mockumentary, Rush Limbaugh in Night School at Woolly Mammoth. A solo show imported by Woolly as part of its “Single Xposures” series, it begins with the words, “back in 1996, Rush Limbaugh was riding high; now in federal prison, he wonders what went wrong.” It then goes cheerfully out of its mind, and so will audiences.
Varon impersonates everyone from his title character to fellow monologuist Spalding Gray as he chronicles how the right-wing motormouth fell hard for a fugitive feminist named Nina Eggly and ended up playing Othello in Central Park to Garrison Keillor’s Iago, Jackie Mason’s Roderigo, and Cokie Roberts’ Desdemona. Along the way, the performer skewers not just Limbaugh—whose orotund tones and rhetorical fatuity he captures with merciless accuracy—but also his dittoheads, his foes on the left, smug news anchors, shrill stand-up comics, pedantic college professors, and even PBS fund-raising techniques, all the while dropping enough names to fill a political action committee’s Rolodex.
So broad is Varon’s satiric reach, and so specific his jokes, that he gives the appearance of being remarkably evenhanded. Even Limbaugh doesn’t come across as entirely unsympathetic, though he’d hardly be flattered by his depiction as a misguided naif—sort of a Candide with intellectual pretensions. That Varon is a terrific mimic doesn’t hurt the evening, but his dead-on impressions of celebs in what one of his characters calls the “American cleverness industry” only begin to explain the show’s appeal. His writing is as observant and understated as his puppy-dog performance style is eager to please. Which makes him a joy to follow as he leaps from one character’s Borscht Belt phrasing to another’s fondness for the long-look-back shorthand of documentar ians (“of course, that was before the asteroid scare”). Varon, and the show, are a certifiable hoot.