Explaining The Lady From Dubuque

During the intermission from The Lady From Dubuque, my husband, a comedy writer, asked me about Edward Albee and his works. In general. I believe he said: “What the hell is this?”

The play opens with Sam (Michael Hayden) asking “Who am I?”during a drawn out game of 20 Questions. Of course, no one can answer; not one of the characters cares much about anything other than his or her own hurts, including Sam’s dying wife and co-host of the dinner party, Jo (Laila Robins). She addresses the audience in full awareness of the other characters. “Don’t you just hate party games?” This was the point at which my husband was lost.

To answer my husband’s question, I relied on my theater courses from college and graduate school. Crap. What is Albee saying about humanity? That we are so disassociated we speak and speak and never listen? And what was I watching on stage?

The game goes on and it is brutal. Yet the suburban living room, furnished–as I whispered to my husband–perfectly minimalist, provides a sophisticated playing field for this intimate game. The well-stocked bar and well-sodden companions are easy to accept. Until Albee shows us how aggressive our self-absorption is. We are saturated not only with alcohol, friends: we are drowning in our uselessness. The group, including Fred (C.J. Wilson) and his girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), is gathered voluntarily, as they seem to enjoy the “guaranteed ridicule and contempt…” that these dinner parties promise weekly; yet, their painful relationships with one another are chosen not for pleasure and comfort, but for sadism and power. They cannot help themselves.

We meet the Lady from Dubuque in the second act. Elizabeth and her companion, Oscar (Jane Alexander and Peter Francis James) take over Sam and Jo’s suburban home, having quietly entered at the end of the first act. Albee’s mild absurdism is crackling with this wonderfully unpredictable couple–delightfully familiar with us and terrifyingly inhuman. Sam asks “Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?” over and over. And over. And over. (My husband was a little annoyed…) We know who they are not. They are not Jo’s family, as they claim to be.

Jo, who is absent for much of the emotional horror show of the second act, sleeping and suffering upstairs in bed, is under Elizabeth’s spell when she emerges down the stairs. We know death has come for her–to take care of her, as Elizabeth says. It pushed and kicked its way in, having tied Sam’s hands behind his back at one point. This is no quiet angel, and she whispers loudly not only to Jo but to us.

This was the discussion we had in the cab ride home (by “home” I mean to a bar for a really strong drink). What was death saying to us? Was it comforting or simply inevitable? Perhaps imperceivable. As expected, we were not paying attention.

When The Lady of Dubuque opened on Broadway, it ran for 12 shows. This revival at the Signature Theatre Company, directed by David Esbjornson, has enjoyed much better reviews. The cast and set are mesmerizing.

I received two tickets to the play from Playtime! for review purposes. Playtime! is the first program to provide childcare during theatrical shows in NYC, and was established to bring parents back to the theater by providing excellent childcare at (or steps from) the theater at an extremely affordable rate. 

As always, all opinions are solely my own.

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