It's been nearly 50 years since Edward Albee wrote The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960), pioneering absurdist comedies that helped establish him as one of our most adventurous and important playwrights. Albee-who turned 80 on March 12th and recently won acclaim for Second Stage's The Zoo Story and its new prequel Homelife-has also directed this excellent production. And appropriately enough, it's at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre, where Albee's one acts were hits in the early 1960s.
The good news is that The American Dream and The Sandbox still feel fresh, funny, sometimes startling, and always original. Perhaps they remain bracing because nobody writes Ionesco-esque theater of the absurd anymore. Albee's brand of absurdist comedy is acerbic and sharply satirical. Dispensing with banal realism, he writes with broad, stylized strokes as he undercuts American complacency and middle-class family values.
The living room in The American Dream has red, white, and blue wallpaper complete with stars, and the well-to-do couple that lives there is named Mommy (Judith Ivey) and Daddy (George Bartenieff). Wearing a well-tailored bright red suit, she tells him an inane story of buying a hat. Grandma (Lois Markle) comes in carrying star-spangled gift boxes. It turns out that Grandma doesn't just live with Mommy and Daddy but also serves as their maid. But that doesn't prevent Mommy from threatening to have her mother taken away in a van.
A Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler) pays a visit, only she can't recall why she came. I can remember when I had my mother carted off, she tells Grandma bluntly. Last to arrive is a hunky Young Man (Harmon Walsh). I were 150 years younger, I could go for you, Grandma tells him.
Albee doesn't spell things out neatly in his twisted American Dream, but it's a biting portrait of bourgeois American mores (motherhood, materialism, treatment of the elderly, obsession with youth, etc.) that still rings true today. The five actors get the tone just right, with Ivey especially funny as the self-absorbed and smug Mommy. Markle had occasional trouble with her lines, no doubt because she recently stepped in for Myra Carter. It's a shame Carter (Three Tall Women) had to bow out due to health issues, but Markle is well on her way to mastering the role.
The Sandbox also features Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma. This time the dysfunctional trio is at the beach, along with a tuxedoed Musician (Daniel Shevlin) playing the cello and a muscled Young Man (Jesse Williams) stretching and preening. They're all dressed in black, which is apt since Grandma is to be buried in the sandbox at center stage. Shorter and less ambitious than The American Dream, the 15-minute Sandbox is equally caustic and works well as a companion piece.
Albee, who remains quite busy as a playwright, proves to be a skillful director as well. The actors' performances are just broad enough without becoming cartoonish. Neil Patel's sets and Carrie Robbins' costumes also capture the darkly satirical tone. With any luck, this marvelous double bill will enjoy an extended run at the Cherry Lane.