Published in Gay and Lesbian Times November 18, 2002
From his first play to his latest, three-time Pulitzer Prizewinner Edward Albee has been obsessed with communication, alienation and the dissolution of the American Dream. His breakout one-act, “The Zoo Story,” and his most recent, Tony Award-winning Broadway success, “The Goat,” confront these themes with a devastating intensity. Two years after he wrote “The Zoo Story” in 1958, Albee penned “The American Dream,” which esteemed critic Martin Esslin called a “brilliant … example of … Theatre of the Absurd.”
Now, the Renaissance Theatre Company, one of the truly bright stars in the San Diego theater firmament, committed to high caliber productions of 20th century classics, has re-teamed Albee’s early one-acts. Producing artistic director George Flint brought the talented actor/director Glynn Bedington out of theater retirement to direct “The American Dream.” But her production misses the mark. It’s played for hard-core realism, with an excess of shouting, especially for the small space of 6th @ Penn Theatre. When the first truly incongruous comment comes in the form of a casual question to a visitor, ” Won’t you take off your dress?” it blindsides the audience completely, because there’s been no absurdist setup, except for Marty Burnett’s eye-popping, thoroughly askew set. Even Jeanne Reith’s lively costumes are too down-to-earth. Theatre of the Absurd is typically characterized by some sort of aberrant dramatic style, and that is lacking here. Albee’s characters are prototypes named Mommy, daddy, Grandma and The Young Man. The dotty Grandma, representing the more rational past, threatened repeatedly with a sort of extinction — if she doesn’t behave, the ‘van man’ will come and cart her away to a nursing home. But hers is the only voice of reason here, in a materialist world gone mad, where no one says what they mean or means what they say, and parents literally destroy their child if he lacks perfection. The ideal son, the real American Dream, is flawless, but he has no heart, soul or feeling. The piece works best in the wild, wacko realm of the fantastical, not as kitchen-sink situation comedy. Pat DiMeo is endearing as Grandma, but Dagmar Fields is the only one who really has the look and disorienting nuttiness of the play.
Renaissance’s “Dream” is followed by “The Zoo Story,” and it makes a thoroughly satisfying end to the evening. Flint himself takes up the directorial reins, to marvelous effect, and he’s got a pitch-perfect cast for this searing drama of disaffection and disconnection. As Peter, an upper middle-class executive, sits down on his favorite Central Park bench for a pipe and a good read, he’s approached by Jerry, a disheveled, hyperverbal transient who proceeds to ask him questions, tell him stories and turn his life irrevocably inside out. Marcus Overton is 100% credible as the amiable Peter, who’s made to see that he lives in a somnambulant state, thought from all outward appearances, his life is an American Dream. Jerry, like so many of Albee’s characters, cannot connect and he is reaching out this one last time, with disastrous results. Jeffrey Jones has grown enormously in the five years since I first called him one of the Faces to Watch in San Diego theater. Fresh from two wonderful romps-in-repertory at North Coast Repertory Theatre — “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Travesties”, where he was a delicious hoot, Jones captures the essence of Jerry — his intelligence, his intensity, his anger, resentment and insouciant emptiness. The two play off each other in magnificently orchestrated rhythm. There aren’t many 45-minute theatrical experiences that will throttle and
“The American Dream” and “The Zoo Story” runs through November 10 at 6th @ Penn Theatre in Hillcrest; 619-688-9210.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.