PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Seascape: Speakin' Lizards!

By Harry Haun
November 29, 2005

Two tiny pools of light streamed lazar-like from the man in the back of the Booth to the theatre's stage Nov. 21.

Just like the old days. The veteran campaigner, now 77 and three deep in Pulitzers (his questioning masterpieces—Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?—pointedly not being among them), had assumed his time-honored battlestation at the rear of the house. The SRO lane had been cleared so a dramatist could pace in peace— even Albee, who is as senior and as prestigious as American playwrights come these days.

In contrast to the domestic dust-ups created by Woolf and Goat, this first Broadway revival of his second Pulitzer Prize-winning play is truly-madly-deeply a day at the beach—from the pastel look of it, a rolling dune off Nantucket full of sand, driftwood and intellectual debate. It's here that two couples square off for some ideological volleyball.

The older pair is human and retired (George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen); the younger is reptilian and evolving (Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel)—lizards to be exact. But this doesn't prevent them from batting it back and forth. The language that passes between species is both oblique and obvious, edging toward an Albee abyss.

The author drank in all this theatricality in a single standing, arms folded, chin fixed. His intensity was practically palpable, but it was discernably diminished at the after-party at Tavern of the Green, whose white clapboard suggested Nantucket's wicker wonderland.

"It was a good reaction tonight," he conceded, weighing his words carefully. "I didn't like tonight's performance as well as some others I've seen. Everybody pushes too hard."

Only two words have been added to the play, and they are in the title. (It was originally just Seascape, but, in the day of Oprah, the marketing people insisted his name be part of the title.) Otherwise, the play is exactly as he wrote it, word for word, pause for pause. He is not tempted to rewrite plays, as Neil Simon is wont to do. "Oh, does he redo?" Albee asked, surprised, his eyebrow arching a bit. "I can't tell with his work." A mischievous smile may or may not have been playing at his lips, but he seemed pleased with the retort.

Does he think the piece has improved with age in the 30 years since Barry Nelson, Deborah Kerr, Frank Langella and Maureen Anderman first delivered it to Broadway and the work made the Tony running for Best Play? "I don't know. It's not for me to say."

(Critics who did say thought it clearer, more accessible "gentle Albee" and that casting the humans older than before gave the play extra resonance and poignancy.)

Now on Albee's drawing board are two new plays—"I don't like to talk about them. I could be wrong about them."—but there is movement on Peter and Jerry, the umbrella title of two one-acts, Homelife and the landmark play that launched his career in 1958, The Zoo Story, about two strangers who meet in Central Park. The recently written Homelife constitutes the first act and concerns one of the men and his wife a few hours before The Zoo Story. "It's not a prequel. It's another play. Put the two of them together, and it's a longer evening. I think that we're doing them in London in the fall, then bringing them into New York."

Weller, who co-starred with Frank Wood and Johanna Day when Peter and Jerry world-premiered at Hartford Stage in May of 2004, is the logical choice (on several counts) to be a green, cold-blooded quadruped in Seascape, being fresh from the Glengarry Glen Ross shark tank. "It has been amazing to work with this cast after that cast," he said. "Now, I can say I only do Pulitzer Prize plays—and Take Me Out, the Richard Greenberg play that I did before Glengarry, was nominated for a Pulitzer."

His next acting assignment will be opposite his wife, Ali Marsh, and is authored by another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Beth HenleyRidiculous Fraud, which he will do in May-June at the McCarter Theatre, co-starring Reg Rogers and Daniel London. "We workshopped it at the Sundance Theatre Lab last summer," he said. "It's about a family in New Orleans, which is where I'm from." His kin survived Katrina—but with bad bruises.

Although his Leslie the lizard professes to hate fish, Weller the actor harbored no such compunctions at the Tavern buffet table. "I studied a garden variety lizard, which I found very helpful in getting into this role. I watched this lizard that was on our balcony in South Carolina when we were on vacation. He kept coming on to the balcony, and I would just sit and watch him move. He went through all the lizard moves for me."

The hardest thing about this role for him was its elasticity. "There's a lot of room for interpretation. The character has grown incredibly since the first day of rehearsal."

At least his first day of rehearsal was happier than Langella's. The play was originally three acts, and Langella signed up because of the compelling second act, which took place underwater and focused on the girl and boy lizards. But, on the first day, Albee blithely announced Act II had been dropped in its entirely and the play would only be two acts. Langella made do with what was left and won the Tony as 1975's Best Featured Actor.

Albee, who also directed that production and therefore was in the position of playing God, giving and taking away, still defends this startling job of editing. "It's hard to explain, or even remember, it now. All four of them were down there underwater, but it's too complicated to go into. I thought it was better just to eliminate it. If it had been necessary, I wouldn't have been able to cut it so easily. It still exists. It's probably in The Theatre Collection of The New York Public Library, but it can't be performed."

Marvel—who more often than not is one regardless of the role—was also a right-on choice for Leslie the lizard's vis-a-vis, Sarah. "I learned a lot from doing this role, and I'm still learning," she said. "It's a beautiful and unusual thing to be asked to play something other than a human being. What I've found is I have to empty my mind before the show and get to a place of no expectation, no anxiety, no presumption—just be open and curious. Everything is new I'm experiencing on stage. Everything—except my husband, Leslie."

For "lizard school," she leaned on "my best friend, who is a modern dancer, and I went to the reptile house at the zoo and did a lot of observation." Negotiating one's way around the stage on all fours with a large and lumbering tail is, she allowed, every bit as difficult as it sounds and looks. "The hardest thing is climbing down the hill without doing a face plant. We actually do have a physical therapist on staff, who works with all four of us. The set, though it looks very bucolic like a gently rolling dune, is actually a 20 foot rake."

Sternhagen seconded that: "It's hard. It's tough work, but it's such wonderful language, such an intelligent piece. And the people are all very human—even the ones who aren't."

This is Grizzard's third Albee. He was the original Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and he copped a Tony for the last Broadway go-around of A Delicate Balance, but, even so, he hardly feels he's any kind of spokesman. "Edward is so stingy with his praise that you never know where you stand," he shrugged good-naturedly. "I had a good time, but it's so tiring. Franny has bad shoulders, and I've got bad knees, and we're too old for this set, but Michael is a darling man, and he's doing a wonderful job helping us."

Director Mark Lamos limped tentatively around the Tavern's main dining room with a cane much like someone who'd worked on that set. "Oh, I'm having new hips in a week," he explained.

He was thoroughly familiar with this turf of shifting sand, having staged Seascape four years ago at Hartford Stage. "Andre Bishop and I were sorta tossing around ideas for plays that might be good for the Lincoln Center season, and we kinda ultimately just matriculated to this one. He had seen the Hartford production and liked the idea of doing the play. First, we were going to do it in the Beaumont—then The Light in the Piazza stayed on there, happily—so he decided that we would do it in a Broadway house."

How would he like this Seascape to be received by audiences? "I think Albee makes your mind explode in the most wonderful way," he proffered. "You don't necessarily need to know what the play means, but you feel that you are in the presence of something meaning-ful and, at the same time, mysterious. And I find that extremely exciting."

His next moves will be operatic—a revival of Acis and Galatea at New York City Opera, which he did three years ago, and a Carmen in San Diego. Then, he'll return to theatre Jan 7-Feb 5 to helm The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by Alfred Uhry at the Guthrie ("It's the true story of a Jewish boy who is baptized and then kidnapped by the Pope's guards and raised a Catholic."). Come September 2006, he will be back in New York to direct A. R. Gurney Jr.'s Indian Blood at Primary Stages ("It's a kind of autobiographical memoir of a little moment in Pete [Gurney's] childhood in Buffalo.").

Yeargan, a Tony winner for his complex but lyrical suggestion of Venice in Piazza, initially thought he would have an easier time of it with Seascape, it being a single set that lasts the whole play and is essentially just a picturesque patch of sky and shore.

"I live near a beach—at Milford, Connecticut, right on the water—so it was easy to conceive," he recalled. "Then the actors saw it for the first time and said, `I can't walk on this. It's too steep.' They'd been rehearsing in a rehearsal hall with a taped line on the floor. What happened was the set actually became a great collaboration with the actors. Just in determining what they needed in terms of a playing area, we carved little stepways and pathways out of Styrofoam and then tried to camouflage it with lots of beach grass."

Another Piazza Tony winner, Catherine Zuber, also thought she had a lighter sentence. Instead of outfitting a whole cast in '50s chic, she focused primarily on two lizard suits. "We worked very closely with the actors to make sure they were comfortable," she said, as if that were possible. "Sometimes, it looked too animal-like in the facial area, and we had to pull back. The makeup was just around the circumference of the face, and only took about a half-hour to apply. Most of it was the actual costumes, including the hands and feet. Edward was very specific in his ideas. He said, `Always keep in mind they're their own species. They're not lizards. They're not humans. They are their own species.' So that's something that was always a driving force for me as I designed the costumes."

The opening-night crowd was steeped in Lincoln Center players and supporters as well as Albee addicts of long and professional standing: Marian Seldes, who appeared in his other two Pulitzer Prize plays (A Delicate Balance in 1967 and Three Tall Women in 1991) and won her Tony for the former; Bill Irwin, who just got his Tony for the last Virginia Woolf and will reprise that performance with his Tony-nominated co-stars Kathleen Turner, David Harbour and Mirelle Enos in London; William Finn, who's now casting the Spelling Bee road company which will open in San Francisco after the first of the year; Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller; costumer extraordinaire Jane Greenwood; Piazza's Patti Cohenour and Michael Berresse, Third's Charles Durning and Amy Aquino (now in sold-out extra-innings at the Mitzi Newhouse through Dec. 18); Jerome Weidman; the super-funny Veanna Cox, who'll be abruptly at liberty Nov. 27 when she and Olympia Dukakis close in A Mother, a Daughter and a Gun at Dodger Stages; Rob Befferer who is playing a singing-and-dancing Shaker brother in Ann: The Word, which Uhry and Martha Clarke are now workshopping; Uhry's original Driving Miss Daisy, Dana Ivey, now readying Mrs. Warren's Profession for the Irish Rep; Mary Rodgers; playwright Terrence McNally, prepping Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life for previews Nov. 23; Penny Fuller launching her own life-as-a-cabaret Nov. 22 at Birdland; Bob Crowley, the Tony-winning set designer turning director any day now when he starts Tarzan swinging into rehearsal; John Guare, and, kneeling besides Sternhagen's chair in rapt conversation for a good 15 minutes, David Strathairn, who has created considerable Oscar buzz for his drop-dead-perfect impersonation of Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. Strathairn is following that with a sharp swing to the right, playing the smut-smashing Sen. Estes Kefauver in The Notorious Bettie Page. He just finished an independent feature called Sensation of Sight, and "now I'm back on the street." Read like an actor.