Saturday, April 18, 2009

Marriage Play, Cesear’s Forum

(Julia Kolibab and Dana Hart)

Often a masterpiece, such as Picasso’s "Guernica," is preceded by many preliminary drawings and studies that the artist uses to puzzle out small details of the major work to come. But what are we to make of a pre-drawing that was ostensibly created 25 years after the masterpiece was unveiled?

Such seems to be the case with Marriage Play by Edward Albee, now being produced by Cesear’s Forum. Originally produced a quarter century after the 1962 premiere of his monumental Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ,this 75-minute dip into Albee’s familiar acid pool of marital tension has the appearance of a tentative first effort at writing what he already wrote. But taken on its own terms, Marriage Play is Woolf writ small. Nay, even microscopic.

Albee is an acknowledged genius at being able to write married characters that swerve almost instantaneously from jocular intimacy to brutal belittlement. But in this play, the conjugal familiarity seems unearned, and the psychic damage feels oddly trivial.

If one isn’t initially put off by the nursery rhyme cuteness of the married couple’s names, Jack and Gillian, the arch and brittle dialogue to follow certainly does the trick. From the moment when Jack enters and tells his wife “I’m leaving you” and she responds with blasé disinterest, the audience is cast aside in deference to Albee’s semantic gamesmanship. If she can't take him seriously, why should we?

The husband and wife of more than 30 years continue their verbal thrust and parry. She mocks him by reading from a diary/report card of their sexual encounters, he responds by critiquing her writing as too much like Hemingway or several other authors, and she fires back by querying him about obscure literary references. But we never learn where their shared erudition comes from, or why they wield it as they do.

Moreover, the play’s dramatic arc is held hostage to an existential parlor game—Jack repeats his entrance line several more times, as if trapped in a Pirandellian loop—that never results in an epiphany of any kind.

Sure, there are a few moments when the two actors and director Greg Cesear find their footing with this flawed material, As in the sequence when Gillian talks about their honeymoon and how other guests at their resort treated them as cute, randy little creatures—sort of demented bunnies. But there are more sharp lines in just about any 1½ minute sampling of Woolf (or The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, or Three Tall Women) than there are in the entirety of Marriage Play.

That said, Julia Kolibab and Dana Hart give it their all and fence gamely with Albee’s self-indulgent exercise. And they stage a pretty convincing mini-brawl that resulted, on opening night, in a scratched leg for Kolibab and a torn pants pocket for Hart.

But despite their best efforts, Albee has erected a thick wall between Jack and Gillian, and another tall one between them and the audience, that virtually no acting company can dismantle.

Marriage Play
Through May 23, produced by
Cesear’s Forum at Kennedy’s Down Under,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,

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