Talk of the town

The action in most of Edward Albee's plays are lips flapping, fingers pointing, and people pacing and occasionally changing seats. His plays -- from 1966's A Delicate Balance to 1994's Three Tall Women -- are all talk. This includes Seascape, his 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy Circle Theatre is currently producing.

Charlie (Joe Berryman) and Nancy (Mary Tharp Booty) are a husband and wife who have reached a critical -- even evolutionary (hint, hint) -- juncture. They reminisce, fight, tease, fantasize, accuse, praise, apologize, and a heap of other things that all boil down to a lot of chatter. Fortunately for the audience, they have some interesting things to say, even if they aren't actually doing much.

Most actors can produce a good fight even when the rest of the relationship is as fleshy and warm as Styrofoam. But Berryman and Booty make Charlie and Nancy sound as tedious as if they really have been married so long that there are no more secrets. Only they do have secrets, which they reveal as the heat and time wear on them. Between relishing good times such as their courtship, babies, and proud place at the top of their family pyramid, they share these hidden fantasies. Charlie once wanted to be like a fish and sit on the ocean floor forever feeling the calm and quiet movement of the water, kelp, and sea life. Nancy admits she considered divorce or adultery when Charlie had a long bout of depression and when she felt her beauty fading as she counted the moles on his back night after night in bed.

Seascape places them on vacation, picnicking on a deserted beach and deciding what to do the next day, the day after, and all the rest of their remaining days. Their children are grown; some even have their own children. They no longer have to work. Nothing is tying them down, and they're the only limit to their opportunities. It sounds easy, but if it were Albee wouldn't need two acts and two hours to examine the flux in an aging married couple's life together. The tension is that Nancy wants to travel, see everything twice, and face new exotic obstacles instead of plowing the same rut day after day. Basically, she thinks they've earned a little life, while Charlie thinks they've earned a little rest. He'd rather have death's icy grip find him snuggled in his warm, comfortable bed at his familiar home than have to track him down in the Alps or on a beach in the Riviera. She nags; he mocks surrender. They talk until their faces are flushed and mapped with streams of sweat racing toward their casual beach clothes. Nancy sees a world of choices, and Charlie sees a path leading home, where they'll wait for the end patiently together. As they decide between remaining in the routine or walking bravely into the unknown, Albee introduces them to two reptiles who left the sea for the land because they didn't feel they belonged underwater anymore.

Yep, that's right. Talking lizards, who are stepping out of the ocean and facing the same dilemma as their land-dwelling counterparts on the beach. If that sounds a bit metaphorically heavy-handed, stagey even, somehow Albee and Circle Theatre's cast pull it off -- skirting the line between the obvious, if bizarre, parallels and outright parody.

When the lizards -- Sarah (Suzanne Thomas) and Leslie (Bill Jenkins) -- arrive, Charlie and Nancy react as might any couple who think they're being attacked by giant, possibly dangerous sea creatures. They scream, run around in circles looking for something to use to defend themselves, and spend a fraction of what may be their final moments together expressing their true love. All their regrets and bad memories vanish in the face of death, but the verbal boxing gloves are on again when they realize Sarah and Leslie are speaking English to each other and are as scared of the humans as they are of them. Charlie even accuses Nancy of killing him with a sandwich made from spoiled liver paste, because he thinks the lizards must be part of a post-mortem hallucination or some kind of sci-fi afterlife.

Eventually Nancy and Charlie introduce themselves to Sarah and Leslie by teaching them to shake hands (or forelegs in the reptiles' case). Like Nancy, Sarah is eager to settle tensions, but Leslie is as anxious as Charlie. Sarah has a childlike innocence and enthusiasm, whereas Charlie displays the suspicion and defensiveness that comes with maturity. The roles aren't three-dimensional like Charlie and Nancy, but then again, they're reptiles who've spent their lives fighting for survival and making more than 7,000 eggs together.

Thomas and Jenkins are clothed in sleek rubber suits with padded chest plates, bulky tails, purple scales, and facial makeup so dense and detailed that all human attributes are concealed in multicolored patterns. The costumes are like roles themselves, and how the designer chose to create the lizards is a comment on the characters. Other productions have used Godzilla-like lizard suits or a sort of cross between Beanie Babies and extras from a Barney episode. Circle Theatre's costume designer Barbara C. Cox opted for a more realistic approach, eschewing garish colors and heavy padding. The result is to make the obvious joke more understated, less over-the-top. Not only do Thomas and Jenkins look like real reptiles, they move like them too. Choreographer and actor Linda Leonard served as the play's movement specialist, teaching the actors to slither around the sand, rocks, and each other. They also hiss and grunt to display the emotions they can't show in their obscured faces.

Still, the human and reptilian couples are very similar, with one half ready to race ahead and the other digging in its heels. The difference is that the reptiles made their decision and took their first step. They've come to the surface to explore life above water. The humans are still deliberating. By the time Charlie and Nancy decide they're ready, Leslie and Sarah have made two steps -- from sea to land and from four legs to two. But having more options hasn't made life simpler; in fact, it's more complicated. Even evolution can move faster than two humans trying to make one decision. It must be all that time they spend talking.