by Hugh Hunter
“The Lady from Dubuque” by Edward Albee flopped in its Broadway debut in 1980, and revivals have been rare indeed. However, director Scott Jones and his cast at Allens Lane Theater in West Mt. Airy try to look at this old work with new eyes.
It begins in the familiar Albee territory of a domestic squabble. A married couple, Sam (Jim Ludovici) and Jo (Karen R. Johnston), invite their friends to a social gathering at their apartment. Modern art adorns the walls, and a stair sweeps impressively across the back wall leading to the bedrooms (set, David Ward).
Sam starts off the evening’s festivities with his version of charades, “Guess Who I Am,” in 20 questions. Amid all the drinking, the guests grow ill-tempered. Jo herself becomes acerbic, and we soon learn the root cause. She is dying and is frequently in great physical pain, but the friends continue to banter as though nothing is amiss.
These friends are notably unprepossessing. Oft-married Fred (Ben Fried) is an unrepentant redneck who woos his girlfriend, Carol (Melissa Amilani), an outsider to the group. Lucinda (Jennifer Newby) is a perpetual scapegoat type while her husband Edgar (Andrew Maksymowych) is full of bland virtue.
The evening ends in a ridiculous quarrel, and Sam carries his dying wife up those winding stairs. But while they sleep, a pair of mysterious strangers arrive: Elizabeth (Carole Mancini), who claims to be Jo’s mother, the “Lady from Dubuque,” and her companion, a black man named Oscar (Christopher Booth).
“Lady” toys with the absurd in the early going. Characters on occasion address the audience directly in Pirandello fashion, but it is not enough to prepare you for what is about to happen. With the entrance of Elizabeth and Oscar, the genre abruptly changes from social realism to supernatural parable, and you never get over the jolt.
The actors help the Allens Lane production hold your attention. Early on, you take a certain Peeping Tom interest in all the unbridled ill will on display. Later, Mancini and Booth command the stage. Superbly elegant as the improbable visitors, they comically ignore Sam as it becomes increasingly clear that they are Angels of Death.
The script has lots of bumps. There is no compelling reason why the friends return to the apartment in Act Two. Presumably, they want to make up for the botched party. On the plus side, it does add a sardonic note that they do not side with Sam in his battle with Elizabeth and Oscar.
The pettiness of ordinary life is especially inane when you consider how we all end up. Albee makes this point. No one in Jo’s social circle can understand her pain. Her imminent death points out to her how alone she is, and Elizabeth at least gives her succor. But while Albee’s script is memorable, it is too disjointed to be truly good.
Allens Lane Theater is located on Allens Lane near McCallum Street. “The Lady from Dubuque” will run through March 21. Tickets are available at 215-248-0546 or www.allenslane.org.