Who’s Afraid of Ed Albee?

The Play About the Baby is horrible, in the best sense of the word.

Forty years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? let Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill expose some deeply twisted marital ugliness at New York’s Billy Rose Theatre, Edward Albee is back with a new variation on “Get the Guests.” If you haven’t seen that play or the astonishing Burton/Taylor film outing, “Get the Guests” is a kind of psychological hostage-taking that shows up frequently in Albee’s work.

Its newest variation is The Play About the Baby, now making its West Coast debut at LaVal’s under the auspices of the Shotgun Players. Like Who’s Afraid, Baby pits the young, naive couple of Boy and Girl against the older, wilier Man and Woman. There are other similarities, namely homoerotic undertones and a child who may or may not exist, but Baby feels like a distillation of the earlier play. Albee has taken some of the most potent themes that have informed his work since 1959’s Zoo Story and refined them into the unflinching, multifaceted Baby, which focuses on identity, parenting, and how people possess each other.

The plot is simple, the interactions complex. Two people have a baby. Two other people come and take the baby away. Or do they? There is much talk about sex, breasts, and memory. While there is no actual sex, there is a Shotgun-sized dose of full frontal, dorsal, and emotional nudity. The play is absurd, funny, fascinating, and ultimately rather horrible. Horrible in a well-directed, well-acted sort of way; horrible in that Albee warms the audience up with his charming Man and Woman and their delightful musings on old lovers and parties and getting lost, entices us with the erotically engrossed Boy and Girl, and then makes us watch as Boy and Girl learn a painful lesson about responsibility and adulthood. “Wounds, children, wounds,” admonishes Man, “if you have no wounds, how can you know that you’re alive?”

Elegant menace rolls in with Richard Louis James as Man, from his neatly groomed beard to the way he runs his hand along the chairs recently vacated by Boy and Girl to catch their “youngsmell.” As the mysterious interlopers, he and Trish Mulholland as Woman drive this production into the fragile Eden created by Boy and Girl. In a new twist for Albee, Man and Woman speak directly to the audience, and they’re extraordinary; both characters were written with the sort of monologues actors kill for. Last season’s The Apple Cart at Women in Time featured not enough Mulholland; Shotgun has more than made up for it here by casting her as the splashy Woman. “I was young and fabulous!” she insists, and fabulous is as usual the word. Brent Rosenbaum’s Boy is at least 75 percent monkey, constantly climbing up on one of the two chairs that constitute the set. As a result, the physical contrast between Boy and Man is striking — polish and stillness versus loose limbs and vigor.

I don’t know if Albee intended it, but this play also raises the specter of miscarriage. I thought one of Katie McMahon’s strongest moments came when her Girl started to believe that there was no baby. Where Man is arch, Woman unpredictable and showy, and Boy so priapically involved he can barely think, Girl has relatively little to do until the second act, and then McMahon does it well, expressing sadness with subtlety.

Albee has clearly been sharpening his tools over the past few decades, and while The Play About the Baby is shorter and cosmetically simpler than some of his other works, it’s no less forceful or shocking for it. Although it’s often quite funny, it’s not necessarily a good time, especially the second act. But then, who goes to Albee for a good time? Under the crisp direction of Reid Davis, Albee’s questions about what makes us real are quite engrossing. Baby demonstrates the power theater has to show things we won’t see any other way.

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