The day after Edward Albee’s death, at 88 on September 16, the Alley Theatre in Houston dimmed its lights in memory of its favorite contemporary playwright. The Alley has produced more work by Albee than any other author not named Shakespeare; beginning in 1967 with A Delicate Balance, the Alley has staged 14 different Albee works. Though based in New York, Albee himself came to Houston every spring from 1989 to 2003 to teach a course in playwriting at the University of Houston.
Albee’s connections to San Antonio were important, though not as extensive. Tiny Alice was probably the first Albee play produced here, in 1967 at Trinity University. The author himself spoke at Trinity in 1980 on “The Playwright vs. the Theater.” AtticRep staged The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2003 and Albee’s signature play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, twice, in 2012 and 2014. An adopted child who was openly gay as an adult, Albee was a brilliant vivisectionist of bourgeois heterosexual marriage. The families of Agamemnon, Oedipus and Medea, as depicted by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, respectively, are — tragically — dysfunctional. But, more than any other American playwright of the past 50 years, Albee was the mordant and merry bard of conjugal misfortune.
Though it was notoriously denied a Pulitzer Prize when Columbia University trustees overruled the drama jury because of the play’s profanity and sexuality, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received a Tony in 1962. Twenty-five years later, in 1987, Marriage Play, whose generic title could be applied as well to a dozen other Albee works, received its world premiere — in Vienna. Its first American production occurred in 1992, at Houston’s Alley Theatre. For its belated San Antonio premiere, CAT Productions in partnership with The Classic Theatre has staged a taut and taunting production.
In the opening moments of the play, 3:30 on a weekday afternoon, Jack returns home from his office earlier than usual. He announces to his wife Gillian: “I’m leaving you.” The rest of this one-act two-hander follows Gillian’s reaction and Jack’s reaction to Gillian’s reaction and Gillian’s reaction to Jack’s reaction … The fact that Albee named his comfortable middle-aged couple Jack and Gillian echoes the nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill who went up the hill and fell precipitously. Marriage Play is the story of sudden conjugal collapse.
Albee distills the conventions and platitudes about matrimony into one 75-minute concentrate. Marriage Play is metatheater, but not in the sense that it breaks the fourth-wall illusion. It does not; Jack and Gillian address and assault each other, oblivious of the audience. But the midlife crisis of a restless husband is such a hoary cliché that Albee subjects it to constant analysis and mockery. When Gillian’s reaction to his announcement that the marriage is over does not please Jack, he goes back out the door and returns to make the announcement again. In fact, he enacts the opening scene four successive times, each time triggering a different reaction by Gillian, in effect a different critical review of the scene. “I’ll go to a hotel,” says Jack. “Isn’t that how it’s done?” Jack is implicitly critiquing the scripts of countless other plays, novels and films in which the fickle husband takes up residence in a hotel, abandoning their house to the wife.
Jack attributes his decision to bail out of his marriage to an out-of-body experience in his office when he suddenly began regarding himself as someone else. “I am aware that I am the object that I am studying,” he explains. That reflective perspective describes the experience of watching Marriage Play unfold. We are asked not to become absorbed in a couple’s banal domestic predicament as much as subject it to critical scrutiny with them. That is true even with the most scandalous revelation in the play — the fact that Gillian has been keeping what she calls her “Book of Days,” in which she has noted all 3,000 times she and Jack have copulated during their 30 years together. When, at Jack’s insistence, Gillian reads a passage out loud, what is most striking is not the sex itself but her commentary on it. And Jack proceeds to provide a literary analysis of Gillian’s prose style, likening it at times to Hemingway, James or Lawrence.
The condensate of a marriage play, Marriage Play is not as complex or satisfying as Albee works with larger casts and more dramatic complications. It establishes its premise in the opening moments and then has little to add but commentary, albeit nasty and witty. It seems more like a workshop exercise than a full-scale play. However, director Tim Hedgepeth, a veteran of two other Albee productions, and his cast provide a coruscating lesson in how to realize the complete potential of a written text. Catherine Babbitt, as Gillian, and Andrew Thornton, as Jack, are in full command of roles that demand their dual presence on stage for the entirety of the production. They deliver flawlessly the nuanced lines of a couple sophisticated enough to quote Alexander Pope and Herman Melville and subscribe to ARTnews. But they also launch into physical combat — punching, scratching, biting, kicking — zestfully.
I strongly recommend this spirited production, especially to anyone enrolled in an acting class or marriage counseling.
Marriage Play, $20, 8pm Fri-Sat., 3pm Sun., The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredricksburg Road, (210) 589-8450, classictheatre.org, Through Oct. 23