ACT's 'Seascape' Dabbles In The Cosmic

One of the vital functions of all theater companies and artists is to make a case for plays and playwrights that are outside the standard repertory. Sometimes that means introducing a great playwright from one country to another, or a once popular play that’s no longer produced, or a playwright who never quite caught on, or taking on a play in new ways that reveal unforeseen strengths and possibilities. When it comes to making a case everything’s on the table.

With ACT’s new production of Edward Albee’s Seascape we have a fairly obscure work by a major playwright, despite its 1974 Pulitzer. The play’s mood is gentle and comic with few hints of the acid-in-the-face histrionics of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, and his late-career, screech-fest, The Goat. And so we should ask, or at least wonder, what’s in this for new Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon for her first directorial outing in her first year on the job.

Why Take Us Here?

Of course that’s the basic question of all producing—where are you leading me and does it matter? As the curtain parts to reveal David Zinn’s monumental beach set (a striking combination of painstaking realism and bare stage aesthetics), we intuitively feel that MacKinnon is after something new in Seascape. Zinn’s design catches the way metaphysical concerns are always impeding on the everyday in Albee.

And so the first answer to the always-necessary question of why is a striking and lovely assault on the senses. You can hear them saying—

Look at that movie set realism, the way we’ve rendered nature in such loving and minute detail. Now see how we haven’t even bothered to mask the lights, the rear cement wall, or the dusty rafters. This splintered consciousness is our world and we’re saying that no one has any choice but to navigate that split over and over again. That is the work of every sentient being, what we must do every day until we die.

And you know, I’m with that. But its requirements are rigorous—for us, for Albee, for the actors, and MacKinnon. You have to tread lightly when you’re traversing a path between the mundane and the cosmic, slip one way or the other and grand gestures turn empty and everyday ones false.

We begin with Nancy and Charlie on the beach, a married couple in the nether world between the end of middle age and old. She feels he’s disengaging from the world and she’s drifting somewhere between annoyed and terrified. They spar, they reminisce, and they bother each other.

One might say that what we’re seeing is the normal state of affairs and what nags at this couple and Albee is how overwhelming the normal can be. For Nancy to say—“We’ve earned a little life, if you ask me. (Pause) Ask me”—is to believe in and demand an order to life, to see the mundane as significant and perhaps even revelatory. Flip the question, though, and you get absence. It’s a tough philosophical position and an even tougher one to act.

Ellen McLaughlin and James Carpenter are superb actors and in many ways they’re excellent here, but they’re excellent in a vacuum. They can’t quite find a consistent sense of reality and the lines between them rarely dance as they should given the concerns of both the play and the production.

McLaughlin’s performance is plagued by too much explanation. It’s as if she has found a motive for every sidelong glance and half gesture. But psychological logic doesn’t necessarily lead us to any kind of truth. You want to feel these people as they are and not as they’ve been figured out. Situations are often without motive. You can‘t get at them through gestures of well thought out realism, no matter how thorough and good the acting.

So at it’s best the case for Seascape here is tentative. We can sense a greater play, but there’s real difficulty in achieving the necessary tone and flow that it requires. No matter what, though, that case is made in Zinn’s set. And at times we can feel the production hint at a different, more consistent, and low-key kind of acting that might unite the cosmic and the mundane. Or better yet, let us luxuriate in the awful split between meaning and the meaningless.

And Then Everything Falls To Pieces

Whatever the merits and achievements of Broadway hit maker Neil Simon, he was a great cultural touchstone in the theater world. Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, David Rabe, Ed Bullins, Maria Irene Fornes, Richard Foreman, they were what Simon was not, and so even in their failures they stood against his crass commercialism.

But things are never as clear as they seem, especially in the heat of the moment. Now, at a distance, Shepard’s True West isn’t that far from The Odd Couple or The Sunshine Boys. And in structure and spirit, Seascape hews close to Simon’s penchant for mismatched types, not just duos but sometimes couples as well, say the quartet from California Suite. And if we’re being fair, and we should at least attempt to be so, Simon was a master craftsman who knew how to finish off everything he set up.

Seascape begins as a minor but searching marriage play to become—in all its high concept glory—a play about Nancy and Charlie’s encounter with a pair of human-sized talking lizards, another married couple, younger, though also at a crucial point in their lives. Is this a good idea? That’s probably not the right question, but it is one that might lead us to another, perhaps more apt question: can Albee make this work?

Well, it all depends on your definition of make this work. So I’ll give you two answers. Here’s the first: yes. Apparently, audiences, at least opening night ones in San Francisco, love actors in lizard costumes. And there’s nothing more to say, that’s the evening for you, you’ve smoked your crack, goodbye.

But, if you crave anything else—sense, art, emotion, intelligence, comedy, tragedy, a few good jokes—Albee’s lizards end it right there. And it’s not because it’s a bad idea, though it is, but because he doesn’t care. The most hackneyed science fiction writer would have understood scores of implications that Albee doesn’t bother with or only haphazardly addresses. A joke artist like Simon would have turned the situation into an escalating series of comic contraptions that would have made us embrace the idiocy of it all—

Nancy: These lizards just don’t talk, Charlie, they talk English!

Charlie: Well, if it was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for them!

Instead, what we’re left with is a wan metaphysics, a stoner’s idea of philosophy, and a drama that has no idea what the stakes are in this encounter. To see the play lurch from moment to moment searching for momentum is to watch a once potent talent implode and give up. The most moving aspect of Seascape is that Albee would recover to write The Goat.

But Albee’s dead now and our concerns are with the living. And I don’t understand how MacKinnon, though unsuccessful, could attempt what she does with the opening scenes of Seascape—to uncover the dramatic force and tension of the play’s first forty minutes—and then decide to produce the damned thing after reading what comes after.

Didn’t anyone at ACT point out that this is unplayable dreck and that to produce it successfully is to train audiences to fall for sensation, empty ideas, and lizard costumes. It’s not just a bad play in a lovingly produced shell of money and high craft, it’s a drug that dares to disguise itself as real sustenance. I challenge everyone in a free audience to say no, to go home, curl up on a couch, and read Albee’s A Delicate Balance, The Goat, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

You are the masters of our theaters and only your belief in real art and engagement can change the consistent failures of our institutions!

‘Seascape’ runs through February 17 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.