WingSpan Theatre Entertains With Absurd Albee One-Acts; Theatre Three Plods Through 33 Variations

The Edward Albee one-acts that WingSpan Theatre Company is doing right now taste as bitter and icy as dry martinis. The American Dream and The Sandbox, both directed by Susan Sargeant, are bracing cocktails of absurdist humor. The production at the Bath House Cultural Center serves them with great style.

These are two of Albee's early short pieces, written 50 years ago but still fresh-sounding with their witty and efficient send-ups of the emptiness of living-room chitchat and in their perspectives on sexless marriages, status seeking and the fear of death. They could be preambles to Albee's 1962 follow-up, his masterpiece of domestic discontent, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The same characters populate both plays now on view at the Bath House. In The American Dream, Mommy (Lulu Ward) and Daddy (Barry Nash) pose in their swank apartment, which is elegantly painted and upholstered in Old Glory colors (set design is by Rodney Dobbs). The couple, dressed to the nines, anxiously waits for invited company. As Mommy natters on about hat-buying and women's clubs, Daddy tunes out, only to be shaken back to attention by Mommy's shrill demands that he listen up.

Grandma (Elly Lindsay), clad in head-to-toe black like an old-fashioned Italian nonna, except for the red sneakers (costumes are by Barbara C. Cox), flutters in bearing boxes wrapped in brown paper. She's a tiny tornado of words and motion, throwing herself around the room and dodging Mommy's threats to have the mysterious "Van Man" come and take her away to the old folks' home.

When the first visitor, Mrs. Barker (Jane Willingham), finally appears, Mommy and Daddy go into a tizzy. "Won't you take off your dress?" Mommy asks, and Mrs. Barker does just that, removing her frilly lavender frock and settling in on the sofa wearing only her black full slip and beige pillbox hat.

Along the way, we hear snatches of conversation about a missing son—a theme Albee, who was adopted by parents he would come to despise, returns to in many of his plays. Adopted as a baby, Mommy and Daddy's "bumble of joy" somehow has disappeared. Or has he? When a handsome 20-year-old Young Man (Austin Tindle) turns up in the living room, no one seems all that surprised, though it does seem odd that Mommy flirts with him. (How fun to discover that Albee uses the phrase "bumping uglies" in this play. Maybe he originated it.)

The conversations grow more bizarre. "There's a surfeit of badgers," says Mrs. Barker, apropos of nothing. Albee's wordplay is delicious. This is from Grandma: "Old people are very good at listening; old people don't like to talk; old people have colitis and lavender perfume."

In the second play, The Sandbox, a 15-minute chamber piece, Mommy and Daddy cart Grandma to the beach to die. The old lady babbles incoherently, except when she speaks directly to the audience. She knows why she's there. And when she sees the handsome Young Man again, now wearing tight white swim trunks and doing calisthenics, she seems relieved.

These plays are sheer perfection and all the performances in Sargeant's production are, too. Lindsay, at last, has a role she can roll with as Grandma (she's too often cast as a sweet little old lady with nothing much to do). This Grandma's feisty attitude and twinkly looks turn darker and yet more serene in the second play. This actress and this play are a good match.

Lulu Ward purses her lips in a terse, crimson-stained Laura Bush pout as Mommy. She's a beautiful, hissing badger in her bright red suit and bubble hairdo. As Daddy, Barry Nash wafts through it all in a finely tuned state of distracted ennui.

In the beach scene, onstage flautist Rebekah Wheeler provides the mournful tunes.

The Sandbox concludes with a haunting image of the muscular Young Man folding his arms like angel's wings over the dying Grandma, who is stretched out on the sand, her hands clasped around a child-sized shovel. In Albee's brand of comedy, death is a day at the beach.

The Grim Reaper lurks unseen behind the main character in 33 Variations, a 2009 play by Laramie Project playwright Moisés Kaufman, now onstage at Theatre Three. If only the Reaper would get there sooner.

Dragged out over two and a half hours, the play, a vehicle last year on Broadway for 71-year-old Jane Fonda, follows dual dramas. Dr. Katherine Brandt (Sharon Garrison), a renowned musicologist, fights the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig's disease as she rushes to finish years of research on Beethoven's 33 takes on a simple waltz by a composer named Diabelli (Jackie L. Kemp). Meanwhile, in parallel storytelling, Beethoven (R Bruce Elliott) grows obsessive over the pieces as his deafness worsens. Rather than finish his Ninth Symphony, which could help pay the rent, he tinkers with more versions of the silly waltz, much to the dismay of his assistant, Anton Schindler (Gordon Fox).

Like Julie & Julia, that two-in-one movie about the dippy food blogger and the life of the great chef Julia Child, what we want from 33 Variations is less Brandt and more Beethoven. His half of the play is the compelling one. And Elliott's portrayal of the composer is full of fury, offset by the comedic twitching of Gordon Fox as his put-upon servant.

The saga of the dying academic pales next to that. And Kaufman layers on soapy scenes of family conflict and reconciliation between Katherine and her long-estranged daughter (played by Lydia Mackay, who has to temper her natural dynamism as an actress to get to the wimpiness of the part). These sections have a seen-that/turned-that-off quality of a bad basic cable movie.

Theatre Three's staging by Jac Alder is a mess of awkward blocking and uneven tempos. He's allowed Garrison no room to breathe in her scenes with a friend, played by the unflappable Terry McCracken. And when it gets to the later moments when Brandt's in a wheelchair, barely able to talk, the illusion is broken for scene changes as the actress hops out of the chair to scamper up steps or, worse, to climb aboard a metal contraption that floats her precariously out over the acting space on a very noisy track.

Technically, 33 Variations has at least 99 things wrong with the multi-level set (designed by Alder), the unattractive costumes (by Bruce R. Coleman) and the lighting (by Paul Arnold). So let's just pick one: The period costumes for Beethoven, Diabelli and Schindler have the men in puffy shirts and brocade jackets (wrinkled and badly tailored but almost passable) on top and pleated khaki Dockers and cheap modern shoes below. Hey, Beethoven was deaf, not blind.

There is one performer who gets everything right in this production and he's pianist Clark Griffith. Seated at a grand piano on a raised corner of the stage, Griffith plays bits of all 33 of Beethoven's variations of the Diabelli waltz during the play and he plays them exquisitely. (Though not in chronological order, but that's Kaufman's doing.) Griffith is the only member of this ensemble who never hits a sour note.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner