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The loneliest number

"An Evening of Albee" at MuCCC


Edward Albee might not be the most accessible playwright, but he's found a kindred spirit in local director Michael Arve. In the past few years Arve has staged three of Albee's most well-known works — "The Zoo Story," "A Delicate Balance," and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — and he and producing partner John Borek are committed to ongoing explorations of the American writer's work at community performance space MuCCC. Currently on stage are three of Albee's one-acts. Although very different, they show off some of Albee's signature traits and give some insight into his life and struggles.

Of the two one-acts, the first two — "The American Dream" and "The Sand Box" — are performed consecutively, using the same actors. The two pieces have similar themes and, according to Arve's program notes, are informed heavily by Albee's own upbringing as an adopted child in a severely dysfunctional upper-class family, his main source of emotional support coming from his maternal grandmother. In "The American Dream," a married couple waits impatiently for the arrival of a mystery guest — one whose identity and purpose they can't remember. Meanwhile, the woman's mother makes plans for a surprise of her own while intermittently squabbling with her daughter and bemoaning society's treatment of the elderly. In "The Sand Box," the same three characters (or very similar variations of them) are transported to the beach.

Or maybe not. Both plays contain strong elements of absurdity and massive metaphors, as well as some breaking of the fourth wall. But don't let that distract you from what Albee's really saying. There are some powerful messages in both plays, and the pain, the loneliness, and the desperation he must have felt growing up in such an environment (from his perspective, at least) is practically palpable in the first.

The third work, which follows intermission, is titled "Listening." In it, three characters — The Man, The Woman, and The Girl — meet in a dilapidated garden and ask questions of, and make judgments about, one another. It's an interesting, artistic play in which almost nothing is spelled out for the viewer, and careful attention must be paid if you hope to have any clue about what is going on. It is riveting in moments, but also undeniably self-indulgent on Albee's part, relying heavily on some of his more grating habits as a writer (see: the constant repetition of the same lines).

Midge Marshall is the only actor in the cast to appear in all three plays, and she does an excellent job throughout. In the first two pieces she plays Grandma, wise, wily, and sweet but tough. She finds a perfect balance of sugar and vinegar, never overplaying the sass or the pathos so that either devolves into shtick. If her portrayal of the character is anything like Albee's grandmother, it explains an awful lot about him as a writer. In the last play, her Woman is a totally different creature. She's cunning, manipulative, resentful, and extremely sharp. Not quite opposite ends of the spectrum, but the fact that Marshall is so deeply rooted in both roles on the same night is truly impressive.

Joining her in the first two plays is Kevin Sean Sweeney as Daddy. For a role that's fairly limited — Daddy is an emotionally neutered, browbeaten shell of a man — Sweeney brings surprising range. He doesn't waste a single line, although a lot of his acting in this role is in what he doesn't say. He plays opposite Nancy Fancher as Mommy, a frigid, vapid, cruel woman with apparently zero redeeming qualities. Fancher has the entitled ice-queen act down, but her line delivery was consistently flat. I debated whether the bored-sounding affectation was an intentional part of the performance, but if so, it made it seem like Fancher was acting while everyone else on the stage was fully in character.

Musician Cristina Dinella also performs as part of "The Sound Box," while "The American Dream" also features the funny, natural Denise Bartalo as Mrs. Barker and Alex Black as The American Dream. Black also appears as Young Man in "The Sand Box," in which he spends the entirety of the play doing calisthenics in nothing but his underpants. Let's get this out of the way: Black is a stunning physical specimen. Tall, muscular, blonde hair, chiseled features — he's practically Olympian. But the important thing is, he can act. His program bio states that he's a relative newcomer to the stage, but he does a good job handling an emotionally charged monologue in "Dream" and hints at some solid comedic instincts in both plays.

In addition to Marshall, "Listening" features Jim Valone as The Man and Meredith Powell as The Girl. As alluded to earlier, "Listening" is an extremely challenging piece, both for the audience and the performers. Timing is crucial, and the play's circuitous dialogue and labyrinthine logic (if it can even be called that) must have put all three talented local actors through their paces. The fact that the play works as well as it does can be attributed almost solely to the presence of the actors and the work Arve did with them.