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Turf and surf
Our Town and Seascape in Connecticut

Our Town
By Thornton Wilder. Directed by James Naughton. Set and costumes by Tony Walton. Lighting by Richard Pilbrow. With Paul Newman, Maggie Lacey, Ben Fox, Jayne Atkinson, Frank Converse, Jane Curtin, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Stephen Spinella. At the Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Connecticut, through June 22 (sold out).
By Edward Albee. Directed by Mark Lamos. Set by Riccardo Hernandez. Costumes by Constance Hoffman. Lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin. With George Grizzard, Pamela Payton-Wright, Annalee Jefferies, and David Patrick Kelly. At Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, Connecticut, through June 30.

The elegantly rustic setting of the Westport Country Playhouse could not be more appropriate to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which is currently playing to sold-out audiences. Mostly they’ve come to see Paul Newman in the role of the Stage Manager. This is Newman’s first stage appearance in nearly 40 years, in a play that once, very early in his phenomenal career, he performed in on TV. (It was a musical version, in 1953; he played George Gibbs, the juvenile lead, and Frank Sinatra, as the Stage Manager, introduced the Cahn-Van Heusen song " Love and Marriage. " ) There’s no pretense at Westport about why the season opener is such a hit: the off-stage voice reminding us not to take pictures or use recording devices asks us gently not to displease " Mrs. Newman " — the company’s artistic director, Joanne Woodward.

James Naughton’s mounting of the beloved Wilder text is perfectly adequate. Once again you laugh at the wryness of its observations of the human comedy, early-20th-century New England edition. (Wilder wrote the play in 1938, but it’s set in fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between the turn of the century and the early teens.) Once again you’re stirred by the beauty of the dialogue and marvel at the theatrical invention. But like many Our Towns, this one errs on the side of sentimentality. Naughton wrings too much pathos out of the drugstore heart-to-heart between 16-year-old George (Ben Fox) and Emily Webb (Maggie Lacey), the girl next door, the flashback that explains why the second act will end in a wedding. And though it’s moving, as always, the celebrated climax — where Emily, who has died in childbirth, travels back in time to relive her 12th birthday and, in agony, watches herself reliving it — is played with so much high drama that it seems Naughton doesn’t trust the audience to understand what makes it such a shattering moment. The wonder of the play is in the depths of its simplicity; it isn’t necessary to underscore George’s tender boyishness or insert a tremulous note into Emily’s goodbye-to-earth speech, which mostly has the effect of reminding us what an elocution-class perennial it is. The dryer and more unvarnished the production, the more devastating it is — as Gregory Mosher proved when he directed the 1988 Broadway revival that was transferred intact to television. (It’s the one with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager — the finest by far of several Our Towns available on videotape.) The play doesn’t benefit from melodrama. Neither does it gain much from a backdrop, even one as cleverly designed as Tony Walton’s and as ingeniously lit as this one is by Richard Pilbrow.

Fortunately, the supporting cast is very good. As the two mothers, Jayne Atkinson (Mrs. Gibbs) and Jane Curtin (Mrs. Webb) are matching opposites — sweet and salty, bosomy and sinewy. The gifted Stephen Spinella makes as much of his few scenes as the embittered alcoholic organist Simon Stimson as anyone I’ve seen. (His best moment is the silent one when he staggers home after a rehearsal, unaware of the kind intervention of sympathetic neighbors.) And Jeffrey DeMunn, a veteran character actor whose work I’ve never been struck by before, is a revelation in the role of Editor Webb, Emily’s loving and good-humored father. Everything about him here is just a little stylized, including his upbrushed fringe of ropy hair, and his line readings are very fresh, as if he were discovering them for the first time.

The question of the hour is, of course, how’s Newman? His presence is magical — enormous yet understated. But I’m not crazy about his choice to play the Stage Manager as a slightly distracted old codger. And skillful as he is, it’s impossible not to hear, in the witty coloring of his lines, a slight self-consciousness — a star turn. He’s most effective in the third act, when he intones Wilder’s great speech about the grave and eternity: his approach is straight-ahead but it carries the resonance of authentic experience. And that’s the key to performing Our Town.

YOU WOULDN’T THINK that Edward Albee’s Seascape had much in common with Our Town, aside from the coincidence that both plays won Pulitzer Prizes. But Seascape is also a highly theatrical version of a human comedy, notwithstanding the fact that two of its four characters are lizards. Albee juxtaposes the lizard couple, Sarah and Leslie, with their human counterparts, Nancy and Charlie (whom they encounter on a deserted, off-season beach), to bring into relief some verities about aging and the victories and defeats of long-term relationships and the terror and excitement of living. In place of Emily’s " Earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to know you " is Leslie and Sarah’s introduction to the human concept of emotion and the breathless — if complicated — promise of evolution. Even Albee may never have written an odder piece of drama than this. It’s also his least acidic work — no other among his plays boasts a marriage as touching and ultimately triumphant as Charlie and Nancy’s 40-year union — and his most uncharacteristically hopeful.

It’s also utterly charming, another word you wouldn’t normally use to describe Albee. The charm is fully evident in Mark Lamos’s superlative production at Hartford Stage, which is as invigorating as anything I’ve seen on stage in the past year. On Riccardo Hernandez’s lovely set, which embodies the play’s title by evoking several different kinds of seaside surfaces, four terrific actors play out the mysterious, tentative, often funny interaction of one human and one amphibian couple who seem less and less a contrast as the evening wears on.

Albee’s invention allows him to highlight elements of gender that his other plays aren’t as witty or as insightful about. For almost the whole first act, George Grizzard’s Charlie and Pamela Payton-Wright’s Nancy are alone on the sand, debating about how their retirement should proceed. She’s in favor of new challenges, terrified of capitulating to the gray inevitability of old age; she’d like to take up a nomadic life, drifting happily from beach to beach as the seasons shift. He’s more circumspect, warier: " I’m not up to barriers and crags, " he objects. Payton-Wright is a remarkable technician who deftly handles the demands of Albee’s aria-like speeches. And Grizzard is staggering — as good, perhaps, as he was in Gerald Gutierrez’s revival of Albee’s A Delicate Balance on Broadway in the mid ’90s. He began his distinguished stage career as Nick in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and there may be no one acting now who understands as he does the banked fires inside Albee’s superficially reticent male characters.

Suddenly, as act one draws to a close, two human-sized lizards (played by David Patrick Kelly and Annalee Jefferies) appear at the top of the dune, investigating this new environment — and providing a curious Nancy and a reluctant Charlie with " barriers and crags " they never would have dreamed of. Designer Constance Hoffman has garbed Kelly and Jefferies in body suits with fleshy, rippled undersides and pebbly, spiked ridges over their backs that extend into enormous tails. The spikes look like small flowering plants, and there are deep, ancient folds under their necks; Sarah’s suggests one of those thick scarves that Katharine Hepburn’s fond of wearing. He’s lime-green, she’s turquoise, and the balance of those two colors is picked up by the marine colors in the clothes Charlie and Nancy wear. The costumes are magnificent, and Kelly and Jefferies slither about in them with comic grace.

Kelly, a quirky, physically imaginative actor whose training has included work with Marcel Marceau’s École Internationale de Mime, finds a range of expressions for Leslie’s aggression and caution, which (like Charlie) he possesses in equal amounts. Sarah (like Nancy) is more probing, more intellectually engaged, more implicitly trusting. And Jefferies gives a performance of extraordinary delicacy. At the climax of act two, Charlie, in an outburst of frustration that takes the familiar form of cruelty, teaches Sarah the meaning of grief. Jefferies uses her entire body to shape the meaning of this experience for Sarah, but what you’re likely to remember about this ineffable moment is its emotional potency and unconventionality. How does an actor devise a way to convey the newness of an old feeling? Jefferies’s achievement in Seascape parallels Wilder’s in writing Our Town — the thrilling rediscovery of the familiar.

Issue Date: June 20-27, 2002
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