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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Haymarket , London

By Clive Hirschhorn

  (L-R) Robert Sella, Catherine McCormack and Maggie Smith/Photo: John Haynes

It is perfectly legitimate for composers to create an entire work around a set of variations (usually on a theme by someone else) so I see nothing wrong in Edward Albee creating his own set of variations based on themes he has previously used before.

In his play The Lady From Dubuque, a resounding flop when first seen in 1980, and which the author himself claims to have written in an alcoholic haze, there are, for starters, reverberating echoes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play that launched him.

Questions of illusion and reality, which he so tantalizingly examined in A Delicate Balance, are also very much in evidence. So is the central theme of death, which he addressed in All Over. In that 1971 play, a man dies off-stage; in The Lady From Dubuque, a woman is dying on stage. She's Jo (Catherine McCormack) whose modern, Connecticut home is the glamorous setting she shares with her husband Sam (Robert Sella).

Jo is dying of cancer, and when the play opens, she and Sam are playing twenty questions with two other couples: solid, reliable Edgar (Chris Larkin) and his wife Lucinda (Vivienne Benesch); boozy, belligerent, much-married red-neck Fred (Glenn Fieshler) and his game-for-anything, would-be fourth wife Carol (Jennifer Regan).

Without wasting time Albee quickly embarks on the kind of vitriolic verbal exchanges that were so exhilarating in Virginia Woolf, but here substitute nastiness for wit.

Jo, doubled up in pain, takes her own special brand of offensive venom out on the Lucinda, and, in no time at all, the innocuous game that started the play suddenly morphes into a deadly variation of Virginia Woolf's Get the Guests.

When, finally, all the insults have been hurled and a great deal of alcohol consumed (another Albee staple), the guests depart and Sam carries Jo, who is now in agony, up to bed.

As soon as they're out of sight, however, two more visitors, an elegantly-dressed woman (Maggie Smith) and a suave black man (Peter Francis James) arrive - uninvited and unannounced. Who are they? And what do they want?

You have to wait until after intermission to find out.

Act Two opens with another set of questions: Sam, in an unflattering nightshirt, embarks on a variation of 20 questions, and, not unreasonably, demands to know who the two intruders are. After toying with Sam (as well as with the audience) the mysterious woman eventually reveals that her name is Elizabeth, that she's Jo's mother, and that she's from Dubuque, where she has a farm. Not possible! shouts Sam. Jo's mother is a small woman from New Jersey with pink hair, and who has never been on a farm in her life!

Just who the black man - called Oscar - is, is anyone's guess.

As Jo emerges from her bedroom and Albee contrives reasons to reassemble the rest of the cast, it gradually becomes clear that Elizabeth is an Angel of Death who has come to take an all-too-pliant Jo away from her misery. Which she does, and which explains why Sam - who knows he is about to lose his wife - refuses to accept Elizabeth's insistence that she is Jo's mother.

The play has been criticized for being too obscure, but it isn't really. Once you accept that the title character represents Death, what little narrative there is, becomes clear.

What I find harder to accept than questions of obscurity, are certain details, like Jo's unfathomable hostility to all her friends in general and to the hapless, perfectly decent Lucinda in particular. Much of the dialogue is contrived and unfunny, and Jo and Sam's friends appear to have little in common with their hosts, or even with on


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