A Tale of Two Species

Cleveland Play House's Seascape takes audiences back to their roots.

Seascape. Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue. 216-795-7000. Through November 28.
Lounging lizards: Andrew May and Derdrui Ring get their reps in.
Lounging lizards: Andrew May and Derdrui Ring get their reps in.
"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," exclaimed this century's most revered dreamer upon her first full-color experience. The same rush of wonder is awaiting any Cleveland area theatergoer willing to make journeys, to take a powder from black-and-white banalities, and to forgo the calcified turd that usually passes for popular entertainment.

The Cleveland Play House is staging an intoxicatingly delirious version of Edward Albee's Seascape, a getting-to-know-you comedy of manners between two loquacious married pairs -- human and lizard. In a play described by Walter Kerr as "thin as taffy," Albee celebrates what George Bernard Shaw referred to as "the life force," humankind's unconquerable compulsion to keep on evolving.

Albee is what club ladies used to refer to as a "national treasure." Through the '60s and early '70s he could do no wrong, until he went out of style, like shag carpeting. Then, in the '90s, with Three Tall Women, he once again, like John Travolta, came firmly and permanently back into the public pantheon. His forte is molding elegant theatrical daggers from the primordial ooze. His signature work, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is a metaphysical Punch and Judy show with his glorious battling titans, George and Martha, swilling gin and hurtling verbal grenades at each other's illusions, leading to a surprisingly tender resolution, where they learn they can still live together without annihilating each other.

Most of Albee's plays are warning cries of inexplicable terror in suburbia. He is an Ivy League witch doctor, summoning up violence on a park bench, death as a matron in pearls, rarefied couples paralyzed by an unseen menace. He portrays the white-bread families (as in The American Dream) being as chilling and deadly as arsenic-laced snowballs. All this is accomplished with language as idiosyncratic and stylized as the dialogue of O'Neill and Williams.

Seascape is Albee's rainbow play, an existential vaudeville sketch to relieve the gloom after a spate of morbid morale deflaters. It failed to find favor with the public on Broadway, even with the exquisite Deborah Kerr, but managed to win the adulation of the Pulitzer Prize committee. It's a strange brand of whimsy, equivalent to caviar -- something that people either savor with relish or dismiss with scorn as salty fish eggs.

Basically, Albee follows the quarreling couple format of Noel Coward's Private Lives, but with a biological twist and lots of Darwinian subtext. Seascape chronicles the bonding of two couples on a beach. The first couple, Charlie and Nancy, are late middle-aged -- the husband loving but emotionally closing down, retired from life's struggle, and interested mainly in finding comfortable recumbent poses; the wife is a Yankee bohemian out of the 1960s Katharine Hepburn mold, a dervish determined to keep whirling. She paints, he naps, and often they debate the nuances of whether they "had a good life" or "are having a good life," while both of their lives are obviously devoid of the element of surprise. Only a writer of Albee's gifts could make such delicate shadings and interactions so involving.

In the second act, the couple encounter Leslie and Sarah on the beach, a younger couple who have outgrown their undersea home and, like their distant ancestors, decide to seek a new life on land. The fact that they happen to be giant deep-sea lizards with a vocabulary as extensive as Mr. Ed turns the play into a spin on at least three different film genres -- Indians vs. Settlers, Martians vs. Earthlings, and A Raisin in the Sun's plea for tolerance and integration saga.

After the initial "You don't eat me, and I won't eat you" routines, we have the "getting to know you" shtick: "Oh, you lay 7,000 eggs? We only have one at a time." The irony that makes the evening glow with a peculiar charm is that, as the two couples share stories of first love, match insecurities, fear for their mates, and exasperate with nagging, they become mirror images.

When the human and lizard species finally clasp hand and claw in friendship, with the human wife pleading for them to stay on land, saying, "You've got to do it sooner or later -- we could help you," we see here perhaps the sweetest moment in the Albee canon. One envisions further madcap adventures as they grow together: a new order of Mertzes and Ricardos -- an I Love Lucy for the intelligentsia.

In this difficult test of skill, the Play House has excelled. Karen TenEyck has designed such tempting sand dunes and sky, it takes all our willpower not to rush onstage to roast marshmallows and weenies. Elizabeth A. Novak's lizard getups are worthy of The Lost World.

Mike Hartman as Charlie and Darrie Lawrence as Nancy perfectly embody their roles by giving flesh to those craggy New England denizens of L.L. Bean catalogs. Derdrui Ring's Sarah exudes a captivating maternal sweetness. Andrew May, who has been a Play House idol for over a decade, fresh out of a flu bed with lizard stuffing and 10 pounds of green makeup on, does for boyish, hot-tempered reptiles what Bert Lahr did for cowardly lions.

David Colacci's brisk, efficient direction makes a difficult play lively and charismatic. One could feel waves of love coming from the smitten audience toward the stage -- not a minor accomplishment with an Albee play.

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