Edward Albee's Baby is growing up -- or moving on, at least. The Play About the Baby ends its American premiere at the Alley Theatre May 7 on the Houston venue's Large Stage. The production began April 7 and opened April 12. Albee directed, the second time he has served in that capacity at the Alley with his own work.
The Play About the Baby suffered a setback days after opening when actor Earle Hyman collapsed on stage April 14 early into the evening performance. Hyman, best known for his Emmy-nominated role as Russell Huxtable on "The Cosby Show," soon returned to New York after spending that weekend in Memorial Hermann Hospital per doctor's orders.
He was unable to return to perform as The Man. The 73-year-old actor was Tony nominated for Albee's The Lady From Dubuque and went on to perform on Broadway in Execution of Justice, The Master Builder and Anna Lucasta. He also starred in Driving Miss Daisy Off Broadway.
Replacing Hyman was Alley company member James Belcher. No stranger to Albee (he played Peter in the Albee-directed Zoo Story at the Alley in 1999), he recently appeared in the Theatre's Comedy of Errors (Solinus), A Christmas Carol (Phizz), A View From the Bridge (Mike) and Travesties (Lenin).
In some situations, such a loss might have meant a run cancellation, but the Alley cast rolled with the surprise and produced, according to the play's other star, Marian Seldes, a different play from the one Hyman had helped the actors and playwright create. In fact, in some ways, the change helped Seldes, who worked for weeks with Hyman and knew him well. She found that bond wasn't necessary for her character, The Woman, and her accomplice, The Man.
"They are utterly dependent on each other, but the connection is mysterious. The fact that [the Man] was James made that stronger," she said.
A Tony winner for Albee's Delicate Balance, Seldes was nominated for a 1999 Tony Award for her work in Ring Round the Moon, in which she replaced an ailing Irene Worth as Madame Desmermortes. A Theatre Hall of Fame inductee in 1996, Seldes' New York credits include Three Tall Women, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Father's Day, Equus, Deathtrap and Ivanov.
Although Baby was rumored to be a sequel to Albee's most revered work, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where an imaginary son is discussed, the four-character play is not a continuation of that storyline. Instead, it tells of a young couple who appear to have just had a child, only to find that illusion challenged by the arrival of an older man and woman. The old couple, possibly incarnations of God or the devil, but described as real people and representing a real threat, take away the young couple's child and, with it, steal their innocence.
Along the way there are repeat references to Gypsies, "wangled tebs we weave," middle aged painters and young handsome suitors, nudity, blood and salicious references to the jungle and the mountains. Plus a lot of laughs, in the wicked, biting Albee vein.
While Seldes finds Baby "hilarious," she sees the final message as something very serious and dark, as the young couple hears a baby crying, even after they've convinced themselves their own child never existed. To Seldes, the play is about "the horrors of cruelity, the horrors of innocence being attacked. At the end of the play, there is a tremendous sadness. I feel rather guilty. My instinct is to weep with them."
The young couple are played by Rebecca Harris (Girl) and David Burtka (Boy). Harris recently appeared at New York City's Signature Theatre's production of Enter the Night as well as Oleanna and Our Town at the Alley. Burtka's credits include the Off-Broadway production of Beautiful Thing, the national tour of Beauty and the Beast and the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Children of Eden.
Together, Seldes, Belcher, Harris and Burtka worked like musicians on the piece, weaving each other's stories around one another as the older couple comes to spit back at the younger couple words they uttered in private earlier.
Seldes describes Baby as a fugue. "The themes keep recurring; there's a coda at the end. We are [Albee's] instruments."
While serving her conductor, Seldes stresses the notion that, even with the lack of names increasingly common to Albee's work, the characters of Baby are very real people. She said, "We are real and the baby is real. Otherwise, there is nothing at stake. Without the baby, there is no play."
The Play About the Baby made its world premiere in September, 1998 in London and has subsequenlty changed, both in the writing, and in the set design (the original concept of a Victorian apartment altered to a sterile no-man's-land with only two white chairs and a white bench). While there are no final plans for the play, there has been interest in bringing The Play About the Baby to Off-Broadway.
Tickets to Baby are $49-$19. The Alley Theatre is located at 615 Texas Avenue. For tickets, call (713) 228-8421 or (800) 259-ALLE. The Alley Theatre is on the web at http://www.alleytheatre.com.
-- By Christine Ehren