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By D. A. Blackburn
In celebration of the 80th birthday of one of America’s most noteworthy playwrights, the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company and the Breathe Art Theatre Project have come together with a deeply affecting production of Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby.” The work, which opened Friday March 28 at the Marygrove College Theatre, will continue at the venue through April 6, before moving to Breathe Art’s Detroit home, the Furniture Factory, on Third Street downtown.
Albee is a three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, perhaps best known for his 1962 production “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” His often controversial work as a playwright spans some 50 years, and has earned him distinction as one the finest American stage writers of his generation, so it’s little surprise that the 2008 season seems flooded by revivals of his plays, in Detroit, New York and elsewhere around the globe.
In New York alone, some five productions of Albee’s works will grace stages during a year collectively called The Albee Season. Productions include “Peter and Jerry”; “Me, Myself and I”; “The Sandbox”; “The American Dream” and “Occupant.”
In Detroit, Breathe Art and the UDM Theatre Company have seen fit to stage one of Albee’s most talked about recent works, “The Play About the Baby,” which premiered in England in 1998, and later appeared off-Broadway in 2001.
The play slices into the life of Boy and Girl, a young pair of very amorous lovers, and dissects their reality with a pair of older, jaded counterparts, Man and Woman. Sharp dialogue leads youth away from innocence, begging questions like “How can you know who you are if you don’t have any scars?” and “Have you ever really lived if you’ve never felt a broken heart?” The end result is a work that forces audiences to confront their own innocence, experience and perceptions of reality.
Surprising is the sheer sexual charge packed by “The Play About the Baby” and the broad strokes with which it paints a portrait of youthful disillusionment. Albee’s clever dialogue is quite graphic, both in its obscenity and for its sexual depictions, giving the work a quality that is both discomforting and alluring.
This form creates a difficult vehicle for performers – as might the show’s costuming, which is rather skimpy for Boy and Girl – but this production’s cast navigates the work with ease and finesse. Detail-oriented direction by Courtney Burkett focuses on subtle nuance to balance the very pointed script, and pulls together the four-player cast for performances that feel perfectly natural in the surreal landscape of Albee’s play.
“Baby” is a work that is at once confounding and contemplative, written in a style that is uniquely that of Albee. It is wholly unconventional, and though it might elicit classification as Theater of the Absurd, it could more appropriately be called Theater of the Abstract, or even Theater of the Existential.
Though Man and Woman are obviously aware of the proceedings – even referencing the play unfolding around them, and addressing the audience by collective name – Boy and Girl appear to be living in real-time, unaware that they are on display for a gathered crowd. Man and Woman are also quick to point out that they are not thespians, though they are on stage, participating in a theatrical production. This dichotomy adds to the disturbing nature of the show, and helps to elaborate upon the work’s messages about man’s perceptions of reality.
The partner companies involved in the production have done well in casting the work, fitting it with an attractive cast – a good move, considering the sexual undertones of the work – with enough collective talent to bring out the complex emotions stitched throughout the script.
David Kowalczyk and Marissa Thorndyke share excellent chemistry as Boy and Girl, together creating a genuinely believable picture of young love and lust. Notably, Thorndyke seems a natural in the role, bringing her emotions to the forefront of the work without a word, even when the script’s focus drifts to long-winded speeches by Man or Woman. In the show’s final scene, as reality seems to come undone, her tears and heartache are so genuine that one cannot help but be transfixed.
Likewise, Peter Coady gives the role of Man a sufficiently intelligent and creepy persona that fits the character exceptionally well. Wendy Wagner is sultry, and quite funny, as Woman. Both elder characters are written with some expansive speeches, and both Coady and Wagner are able to deliver them with conviction and careful pacing to maximize their impact.
The production’s staging is Spartan, consisting mainly of a scrim, blue and pink arches and a pair of rubber exercise balls, but it is as the playwright intended, and works well with the abstract nature of the show. Lighting and sound designs are well executed and also rather understated.
“The Play About the Baby” is a fine benchmark to commemorate Albee’s birthday, which passed, incidentally, on March 12, and this collaborative production is a fine showing. In either venue, it’s well worth the trip for fans of thought provoking theater, or anyone who enjoys seeing actors and actresses at their very best.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
‘The Play About the Baby’
A co-production of the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company and Breathe Art Theatre Project. Fri.-Sun., through April 6 at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; and Fri.-Sun., April 11-13 at the Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit. All tickets: $15. For information: 313-993-3270 or http://www.breathearttheatre.com.