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Friday
May252018

‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ - GLENDA JACKSON AS EDWARD ALBEE’S MOTHER

Glorious Glenda Jackson

HENRY EDWARDS - New York - April 3, 2018

The Broadway production of Edward Albee’s 1991 autobiographical drama, “Three Tall Women,” is the most compelling event of the current theatre season.

What makes the experience even headier is the presence of Glenda Jackson as one of the three title characters. Costars Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill portray the other tall women, and they, too, superb.

It’s been 30 years since two-time Oscar winner Jackson appeared on Broadway, 26 years since she retired from acting to spend 19 years serving in Parliament, and two years since the actress returned to the stage and stood London on its bespoke ear as Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

Albee freely admitted that “Three Tall Women” brings to life his narcissistic and domineering adoptive mother, Frances Cotter Albee.

The playwright was born in Virginia in 1928 and adopted three weeks later by Reed Albee, an heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters, and wife, Frances. 

Patrician and distant, the couple was unsuited to dealing with an artistically inclined child.

Albee, who grew up feeling like an interloper in their home, subsequently characterized his foster parents as a “white, upper-middle-class, rich, deeply fascistically Republican family.”

Things reached the boiling point and between Albee and his adoptive mother when his politics grew more liberal and he became more open about his homosexuality which Frances despised. 

At the age of 18, he left home and did not see the aggressively unpleasant and judgmental socialite for 20 years.

“It is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self,” the writer wrote in the introduction to the published edition of his play.

Frances Albee died in 1989 at the age of 91, and it was not until after her death that her son thought the time had arrived to transform his recollections into a play.

His strikingly personal effort scrutinizes, in its various stages, the life of the dying woman.

Albee ranks as the foremost playwright of his generation. Yet in the 1980s, after a debilitating battle with alcoholism and three commercial and critical Broadway failures in a row, he was banished from the New York theatre scene.

After every producer turned down “Three Tall Women,” Albee staged its world premiere at Vienna's English Theatre in 1991.

Three years later, in 1994, in one of the great turnarounds in the history of American drama, an Off Broadway production caused a sensation, and the 26th of Albee’s 35 plays became the only one ever to receive unanimous praise.

Albee had twice earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for “A Delicate Balance” and “Seascape”) and “Three Tall Women” gave him his third win.

The Off Broadway production of the playwright’s first play, “The Zoo Story,” proved to be brilliant launching pad for his career, and Off Broadway restored him to glory.

“Three Tall Women” is a two-act play with no intermission between the acts and absolutely no story to tell.  It’s all talk, and there’s plenty if it, two hours’ worth to be precise.

Thanks to the pitch perfect direction of Joe Mantello and the stunning delivered by three splendid actresses, you will listen spellbound.

Choosing not to give his characters fictional names, the playwright identifies each alphabetically.

Jackson portrays demanding and imperious 92-year-old “A” (who insists she’s 91).

Wearing a dressing gown, her broken arm in a sling and held together by pins, the ferocious crone rules over her opulent bedroom, beautifully designed by Miriam Buether.

The actress, who seems capable of speaking for ten minutes without stopping to take a breath, drenches the stage with a feverish cascade of alternately funny and appalling memories and remarks.

Two minions attend the cantankerous matriarch, humoring her and rolling their eyes in disbelief.

“B” (Metcalf) is the old woman’s fifty-two-year-old secretary and caretaker. Compassionate, clear-eyed and wryly cynical, she does her level best to manage and negotiate A’s incomprehensible mood swings, inconsistencies and nastiness.

“C” (Pill) is the 26-year-old representative of A’s attorney and she’s there to tidy up some of the old woman’s financial affairs before it’s too late. Impatient and increasingly frustrated by A’s contrariness, C proves unwilling to “be nice.”

It’s obvious both women are dismayed by their client, and it’s hard to blame them.

A is forgetful, self-contradictory, incontinent, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and at times hostile, shouting sudden, vile insults aimed at the living and the dead.

Even though she appears to be suffering from dementia, she suddenly remembers her life experiences in great detail, and that includes a hilariously risqué Albee monologue about her husband’s “pee-pee.”

A married for money and became an affluent society wife, but her sister became a drunkard who was later forced to marry.

Despite caring for her drunken sister and ill mother and husband, she takes pride in her perseverance: “I think they all hated me, because I was strong, because I had to be.”

There’s also a son and there’s a decided coolness between him and his mother.

 “Will he come today?  Is today the day he comes?” A wonders out loud. “He never comes to see me, and when he does he never stays.”

Overcome by rage, she shouts, “I’ll fix him; I’ll fix all of ‘em.”

The act suddenly comes to an uninspected conclusion when A suffers a massive stroke and becomes unresponsive.

Albee, one of the great innovators of the theater, has experimented with various genres and techniques over the years and “Three Tall Women” is no exception.

 In the first act of the play, he looks at his mother from the outside.  In the second act, in order to explore why she became so bitter and odious, he transforms the three tall women into one woman, his mother’s younger, middle-aged, and older selves.

C now represents A in her 20s, B in her 50s, and A in her energetic 70s.

A is no longer the sometimes irrational, uncomfortable creature that inhabited Act One.

 B has been transformed into an already jaded version of an A whose life has been riddled with conflicts and not turned out the way she expected.

 C is an attractive and resourceful 26-year-old who believes her happiness is in the future.

A life sized doll representing a dying A has been placed in her bed and the rear wall of the bedroom has been mirrored to reflect the audience as its watches itself as it watches Albee’s dissection of how we become what we

While A dominated the first half of the play and C did not have much to do, C, brilliantly portrayed by Alison Pill, commands the second half,  a brutal, but also hilarious, account of a lifetime of fighting, misunderstanding and marital woes.

C, all hope and quivering confidence   (she’s a fabulous fun loving 1920s flapper) is convinced she’ll never become her compromising, angry 52-year- old self or the embittered bed-ridden 92-year-old“thing” that lies in the bed.

Nor can she believe s and drive her only son out of the house
She listens in growing panic and disbelief as her older selves
tell of what’s in store for her, marriage to a man she doesn't love followed by his and her infidelity, his eventual death, the tortures of ill health, friends and family who disappoint, and most painful of all, the estrangement of a gay son she doesn’t understand, accept or love and drove from the house.

Just then, a young man (Joseph Medeiros, a lookalike for a young Edward Albee), enters, sits on A’s bed and pays respects to the woman he could neither forgive nor forget, touching her hand, giving her a peck on the cheek, but saying not a word.

At the sight of him B explodes: “He left! He packed up his attitudes and he left! And I never want to see him again.  Go away!”

That prompts a discussion of how each version of A, in turn, changed over the years into a vicious old harridan.

At the play draws to a conclusion, the three selves what the happiest moment in life is and Albee provides each with a stirring monologue.

C optimistically believes all of her happiest times haven't happened yet and are yet to come; B thinks that it is the middle of life, during which one can look both back and forward all at once; for A, the happiest moment is yet to come, for in that moment no one will expect her to continue being brave and soldiering on through adversity. 

Her final conclusion: “That’s the happiest moment.  When it’s all done.  When we stop.  When we can stop.”

The fading stage lights signify the end not only to the play but also to the old woman’s life.

Even though “Three Tall Women” concentrates on death and dying, it more profoundly deals with the shape of a human life, the inevitable changes that take place as we age and how we subjectively process those changes at each stage of our lives.  It seems as if no one is really prepared for the changes that are bound to come.

“Three Tall Women” is thrilling, and believe you me, it leaves you with plenty to think about.

Tickets and more information: THREE TALL WOMEN BROADWAY.

Three tall women Laurie Metcalf, Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill on not the easiest of days

Tuesday
May222018

‘AMY AND THE ORPHANS’ IS A THEATRICAL FIRST

Vanessa Aspillaga, Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk and Mark Blum (photo by Joan Marcus)

HENRY EDWARDS - NEW YORK - March 9, 2018

Until Lisa Ferrentino’s family comedy-drama, “Amy and the Orphans,” arrived at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, there’s never been an Off Broadway or Broadway production to cast an actor with Down syndrome in a lead role.

Groundbreaker Jamie Brewer, 33, has been performing since the eighth grade and is best known as Adelaide 'Addie' Langdon on FX’s “American Horror Story.”

The actress portrays the Amy of “Amy and the Orphans.” Amy has Down syndrome, lives in a group home in Queens, has a boyfriend, loves movies, manages a movie theatre and punctuates her conversation with quotations from her favorite films (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”).
Before I go any further, let it be said that Brewer is superb and her performance is one of most entrancing in quite some time.

Theatergoers know playwright Ferrentino from her 2015 debut, “Ugly Lies the Bone.” The agonizing portrait of a badly disfigured American veteran of the war in Afghanistan scored a critical and commercial success for Roundabout Theatre Company, encouraging the organization to commission the play that became “Amy and the Orphans.”

Ferrentino bases the character of on her deceased aunt, Amy Jacobs, who was born with Down syndrome in 1964.It was a time when children with the condition were called Mongolian idiots and hidden from view. Ferrentino’s grandparents were advised not to take the baby home, did as they were told, and Jacobs spent most of her life in state-funded institutions where she never learned to read.  Ferrentino’s script includes the instruction: "Finding a talented actor with Down syndrome isn't difficult, so please do it.”

Eight-time Tony nominee Scott Ellis (“The Elephant Man”; “She Loves Me”) directs the production and the intentions of everyone involved are so worthy it would be a pleasure to report that the result is wonderful.

Unfortunately, “Amy and the Orphans” turns out to be a mixed blessing.
Fearful perhaps of the subject, the play goes out of its way to be too audience friendly with Ferrentino dishing up doses of hoary comedy (some of it really funny in spite of itself) that suggests very early Neil Simon. Josh McDermitt and Jamie Brewer (photo by Joan Marcus)

“Amy and the Orphans” takes place in two time zones, the 1960s and the present and the Sixties come first.
Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt from “The Walking Dead”) are married and in their mid-thirties, and have checked into a couples-therapy retreat.  They are caught up performing a silly New Age exercise about trust and personal truths that inevitably turns into a not-all-that serious squabble.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, we next meet Amy’s two older siblings, the “orphans” of the title, Jacob (Mark Blum) and Maggie (Debra Monk).
They have flown to New York, he from California (it was the farthest he could escape from his Long Island roots) and she from Chicago, to visit Amy at the state residence in Queens, NY, where she lives, inform her of their father’s death and transport her to Montauk, at the far end of Long Island, for their father’s funeral.

Jacob and Mary, who are both in their sixties, are so exaggerated, loud and aggressively neurotic, they seem to have escaped from a Borscht Belt that doesn’t exist anymore.
Jacob, a classic kvetch, maintains a strict organic diet (he juices six times a day), is a practicing Born Again Christian, and recently had braces placed on his teeth (“because of a serious jaw misalignment").  

It’s no surprise that he paid tribute to Jesus during their mother’s Jewish funeral service (which neither sibling bothered to tell Amy about).
Maggie, a real estate agent from Chicago, is a shrill, pushy, full time mess. She comes equipped with a theme song that she bellows repeatedly and goes like this: “Isn’t there a grown-up who can take care of this for us? We’re orphans now!”

Amy’s devoted, capable, pregnant, foul mouthed and very loud caretaker Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga) is mandated by regulations to accompany Amy, a ward of the state, on the road trip down the Long Island Expressway to the funeral. The pushy “walking embodiment of Long Island” insists on driving.
Road trips are nothing new — think of the riotous, dysfunctional, car-bound family journey in “Little Miss Sunshine.”   But this particular version is studded with clichés: carsickness (Maggie), whining (Jacob), and disapproval (Kathy).

What proves of interest is the interaction between Amy and her siblings.
Even though they have visited their institutionalized sister on holidays, it turns out Jacob and Maggie have largely ignored her and Amy is little better than a stranger to them. Nor do they know what to make of the mix of jokes and movie quotations that is part and parcel of Amy’s conversation, and do not listen.

As the ride goes forward, Kathy leads Jacob and Maggie to the realization that Amy is more self-aware than they realized, and that they have neglected her.
Blum and Monk are old pros and Aspillaga is shamelessly funny as the actors navigate their way in, out and around the melodrama and sentimentality that punctuate their unlikely journey.
Meanwhile, the roots of Amy’s neglect are gradually revealed in the series of flashbacks to the 1960s that occur along the way.  Jamie Brewer as the play’s title character, with (in front seat) Vanessa Aspillaga as her caregiver and (in back seat) Debra Monk and Mark Blum as her siblings.

We’ve encountered Sarah and Bobby in a couples retreat.  Now we learn that  Sarah has just given birth and is suffering from depression.
Bobby, perpetually horny, and thinks that sex will solve his wife’s problems.  But Sarah is repelled by her husband’s chronic overeating, and it’s not a pretty sight for her or the audience when he takes off his shirt. (It’s another example of what is supposed to be funny but isn’t.)

Eventually, it becomes clear that Sarah and Bobby, both deceased, were the parents of Jacob, Maggie and Amy, and were struggling with trying to determine whether they were capable of caring for an infant daughter with Down syndrome without destroying the rest of their family.
 “Our daughter's name means love. But that's not why we picked it. We picked it 'cause it was the shortest in that book of names. So even though the doctors told us she'll never learn to spell or write, if it was only three letters we said we'd try,” Bobby tells his wife before delivering the ultimatum that trying has proved to be impossible, and that Amy must be institutionalized.
As they reach the end of the road and Bobby’s funeral awaits them, Kathy, the ultimate truth teller, delivers a shocking revelation about Amy's past.

Maggie and Jacob’s vaguely recall Amy’s childhood in a state institution as pleasant— after all their family would take her to the movies every few months.
Kathy sets them straight. Amy was confined in Willowbrook, the hideous Staten Island institution for mentally ill or delayed children that functioned as a “human warehouse” and shut down in 1987.
Willowbrook was filled to more than double its capacity. But crowding was the least of the horrors. Some residents were reportedly used as test cases for hepatitis studies. Others were left to languish, abused and living in squalor with little medical or mental health care.
In truth, Amy’s younger years were years of ongoing suffering.
The information is such an authentic shocker, but that doesn’t mean the laughter is completely shut down.

 Funniest of all (and it really is funny), Maggie stages an uproarious memorial service for her deceased father in a jammed-to-the- rafters Chinese restaurant and (for those who think they’ve seen everything, she utilizes a karaoke machine to deliver her eulogy.
Drawing the play to a conclusion, Amy steps in front of a red velour curtain and delivers a breathtaking monologue comprised of classic lines from the movies she has seen over the years.  It’s funny and emotionally wrenching, and a spellbinding tour de force for Brewer.
“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,” she says with absolute conviction, rousing cheers.
And Amy probably could have been had she not been born in a time when the options for treatment were so limited and cruel.

Mixed blessing or not, “Amy and the Orphans” leaves audiences happy and enlightened.
It’s a safe bet, thanks to Ferrentino, they will never think about people with Down syndrome in precisely the same way again.

For more information about the show, and Roundabout’s busy new season visit : Roundabout Theater