Even those familiar with Edward Albee’s most famous works and his trademark absurdist style might still have trouble appreciating his sinister, surreal and altogether puzzling 1980 play The Lady from Dubuque, which flopped on Broadway after just 12 performances and is now receiving a new staging produced by Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company.
Signature was originally scheduled to premiere a new Albee comedy titled Laying an Egg. But since 83-year-old Albee is still working on the play, Signature scheduled a revival of Dubuque to fill the gap. (Signature is also currently presenting Athol Fugard's Blood Knot and Katori Hall's Hurt Village.)
Although it hardly belongs in the same league as his better titles, Dubuque does share many of the same themes and scenarios as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance and The Play About the Baby.
As it begins, Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) are hosting a party at their stylish home for two other couples, and they are all engaged in a game of Twenty Questions. While Michael tries desperately to stay upbeat, Jo sulks angrily over the fact that she is dying of cancer – often directly to the audience.
At the end of act one, a mysterious older couple (Jane Alexander and Peter Francis James) arrives on the scene. Although the woman claims to be Jo’s mother from Dubuque, Iowa, Sam insists that she is not Jo’s mother, who actually lives in New Jersey.
But strangely enough, Jo deliriously embraces the woman with open arms while poor Sam is tied up, beaten and ridiculed by the crowd. All the while, the oft repeated question of “Who are you?” which was originally part of a party game, takes on a chilling meaning. Although it is never explicitly stated, it is pretty clear that this couple represents Death coming to take Jo out of her misery.
While the play remains a mishmash of shock value and unapologetic nonsense, David Esbjornson’s absorbing production stresses the play’s violent qualities and is marked by thoroughly intense performances.
Robins convincingly portrays Jo’s blinding pain with raw intensity while Hayden emphasizes Sam’s sincerity in spite of overwhelming confusion and torture. On the other hand, Alexander is cool, regal and quite commanding. With Francis as her poised, often sarcastic partner, they make a great couple to find onstage – but hopefully never in your own home.