Beach bingo 

When is a picnic at the beach no picnic? When Edward Albee is the host. In his 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Seascape, Albee puts his favorite victims, a couple entering late middle age, on the sand for a good two-act grinding.

Nancy (Linda Hammell) and Charlie (Dave Cunningham) are at quiet loggerheads. As much as he would like to coast into their dotage, she wants to rage against it. The kiddies are all grown-up. The house is big and empty. And Nancy suspects that their marriage is petrifying. She teases Charlie about his lack of adventure, reminding him of their courtship and all the swains she might have fancied more if she had fancied him less. Why can’t we travel, she asks; what’s keeping us from making a move in a new direction? Charlie is the wallflower’s wallflower. He doesn’t like the thought of change. Nor does he like to be reminded of himself as a vital young man who enjoyed swimming to the bottom of a cove to watch the seascape.

This is standard-issue deviousness in an Albee play. The first acts of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and A Delicate Balance both feature put-upon bourgeois pantywaists who are soon rattling their cages. The catalyst for this transformation is another couple, hapless and young. Enter Leslie (Michael Owen Davis) and Sarah (Elizabeth Lee), two lovebird lizards who decamp from the sea for the sand.

That’s right, lizards — as sleek and supple as their companions are lumpy and lax. Nancy and Charlie are about to sulk off the beach when they notice that the figures that had been frolicking on the dunes are now the two big reptiles only feet away. Charlie curses the liverwurst pâté, certain he’s having a post-mortem hallucination. But when the two slimy strangers begin speaking English, he quickly forgets that he might be dead. Charlie goes on the offensive, taunting Leslie and Sarah about their life under the sea: no love, no art, no picnics. But the taunting gets the best of him; it enrages Leslie and makes Sarah cry. If the lizards are evolving into humanity, Charlie is digressing from it. Only in one final hopeful gesture does Charlie realize how little separates the two couples, species be damned.

The key to this play’s success is Charlie, and Cunningham sacrifices him on the altar of uncertainty. In the first act, he’s sniveling and effete, a sad sack ready for milk and cookies 20 years too soon. In the second act, he comes on like a sniveling and effete junkyard dog. While Nancy and Sarah bond over their breasts or lack thereof, Charlie tries to show Leslie who’s the boss, evolutionarily speaking. Davis gives Leslie a laconic, almost gruff machismo that quickly puts Cunningham’s Charlie on the ropes. And yet, that mincing, petulant awkwardness with manliness might well signal that Charlie is finding his spine at last.

Hammell’s Nancy exudes a yentl brashness modulated by deep affection for Charlie. Nancy is discontented, but not without compassion; she wants Charlie with her, no matter what. She’d like to think him capable of something more than what he’s giving her, even adultery. Sarah understands her man just as well, wise to all his boasts and swagger. Lee may have the smallest part in the play, but she’s the most comfortable in her skin.

And that’s really saying something, because Albee is not one to give actors an easy go of it. He’s notorious for rich, elegant dialogue that requires perfect timing. Actors can seem like skittish ventriloquist’s dummies when they can’t hack the pace. Moreover, Albee’s work is often chilly precisely because he’s so chatty about the same damn subject matter. And this is less a play than a communiqué, one that demands and commands the full attention of its audience.

The Trinity House Theatre, with its folksy intimacy akin to the knickknack-laden home of a Livonia granny, offers considerable warmth. The set design by Susan Vanden Brink and Kathy Kitzman is suitably economical, a sparse collection of boxes draped in beige cloth. Indeed, there’s a bracing workshop air to the production, a bit rough around the edges but very game for the considerable task the author has set. In other words, perfect for Albee in his late evolution.

 

Edward Albee’s Seascape is at the Trinity House Theatre (38840 W. Six Mile Rd., Livonia) through Nov. 24, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call 734-464-6302 for tickets and more info.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and theater for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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