Brian Murray, Marian Seldes, Kathleen Early,and David Burtka in The Play About the Baby(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Brian Murray, Marian Seldes, Kathleen Early,
and David Burtka in The Play About the Baby
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Let's hear it for Marian Seldes, ladies and gentlemen! No more than four months ago she made Theresa Rebeck's otherwise tepid Butterfly Collection worth sitting through. And now she's the one you keep watching in Edward Albee's measurably more enjoyable new exercise in sly obscurity, The Play About the Baby.

Depicting a mysterious woman identified as Woman who arrives on Edward Arnone's abstract playroom of a set to menace two new parents, she gets to chatter away at the befuddled young couple--and, through the fourth wall, to the audience--in a series of often-hilarious arias. Using her slate-thin face, her stick-figure body, and every trick she's mastered in over 50 years on the stage, Seldes does everything she can to enliven Albee's already lively script.

She tells a story about trying to interview a famous novelist over the phone; she pretends to be signing a theater performance and mimes both the Last Supper and the Crucifixion; she cups her breasts while remembering her nubile girlhood; she sneaks into and out of the wings, sucking in her cheeks and rolling her eyes and making suggestive moves. At one point, when the new--and, for the moment, nude--mom and dad skitter across the stage, she inquires: "Did two people just run nakedly across the stage, giggling." She pauses briefly and, with a cavalier air and a barely perceptible shrug, adds: "Why not?"

She's a constant delight, having informed everyone that "I am a trifle theatrical, I suppose." Albee has certainly tailored his Woman to Seldes' not trifling gifts. If she weren't reprising the role she played last year at Houston's Alley Theatre, the playwright's world would be a less sunny place indeed--though with a rocking horse and a stroller suspended from the ceiling, a Claes van Oldenburg-like over-sized pacifier sitting upright, and two children's blocks to serve as seats, the cheerful space wouldn't be devoid of interest and amusement. Albee, who often combines his pretense to deep meaning with grandiosity (as proven recently in the overrated Tiny Alice revival), has in this play combined that pretense to deep meaning with humor.

Bright and funny until it turns dark in its second act and the laughs fade, The Play About the Baby doesn't include much action, although Albee seems to want us to believe it contains canyons of meaning. As the proceedings get under way, the young couple, who are referred to as Girl (Kathleen Early) and Boy (David Burtka), have their baby. "There," Girl says with satisfaction--and, after a short while, she holds the child for the audience almost to see. Then the couple begins to romp as if they were Adam and Eve in early-days Eden, trying out a few sexual experiments (also not seen), until a character known only as Man (Brian Murray) arrives to chat them and the audience up. After a bit of this, he introduces Woman, and they have some loaded exchanges. Their ambiguous banter frightens the marrieds, because Man announces, "We've come to take the baby." Finding he has to be more specific for the puzzled Girl and Boy, he adds in stentorian tones, "We've come to take the baby. Away." In the second act, Man and Woman apparently pull off their planned kidnapping and convince the young couple that there never was a baby. Furthermore, they explain didactically that, without pain, life has little meaning. At play's end, Girl and Boy--having accepted that no baby existed, even though they think they still hear it--are disillusioned, forlorn, and looking like Adam and Eve post-Eden.

Albee must surely have intended to evoke a paradise lost. Then again, maybe he doesn't. What the author wants to say remains sketchy. Long a maverick creator, he often gives the impression that he's getting a kick out of playing cat-and-mouse with audiences, reviewers, and maybe even the actors, who apparently aren't given straight answers when they inquire about the significance of certain lines and action. Of course, it's possible that Albee doesn't know the answers and doesn't want to.

To be sure, particular subjects recur in Albee's writings--the most obvious one here being the presence or absence of a baby, which has a famous precedent in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The issue of genuine or misplaced faith is also adumbrated here as in other Albee works. In the first act, Boy says, "Our reality is determined by our need," which is then illustrated as he and Girl eventually face a reality determined by their need to believe in an imagined rather than a real child. Not incidentally, this abrupt switch of allegiance from one tenet to another is precisely what happens at the end of Tiny Alice when the ex-cleric Julian converts to a belief that his savior is the unseen Tiny Alice of the play's title.

Kathleen Early, Brian Murray, David Burtkaand Marian Seldes in The Play About the Baby(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Kathleen Early, Brian Murray, David Burtka
and Marian Seldes in The Play About the Baby
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Besides making pronouncements about faith, truth, and illusion, and the conviction that scars awaken us to life, what is Albee about here? "Without a hurt the heart is hollow," Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt declared more succinctly 40 years ago in The Fantasticks. Many will speculate that Albee is delving into his own history--that he's the intercepted baby here. Since "Albee" and "Baby" are off-rhymes, he could be attempting through his art to rectify or avenge wrongs done him as a child. It's common knowledge that he was abandoned by his natural parents and adopted by a couple chilly to the notion of parenting. Following this lead, someone wanting to analyze his intentions--the unexamined motivations--for The Play About the Baby could say that, with Boy and Girl, he gets to punish his biological parents and, with Man and Woman, he gets to expose his adoptive mother and father as lubricious, treacherous.

Albee is on record as maintaining that he doesn't write crypto-biography. Reiterating Boy's comment, he recently claimed to interviewer Leslie Garis, "This play has nothing to do with me at all, except my theory that everybody's reality is determined by their need." (This was Eugene O'Neill's theory as well.) He went on to say, "We lie to ourselves. We invent things. We deny things according to what we can tolerate, and this play is another extended metaphor of that."

What Albee seemed not to have noticed, and Garis apparently didn't call to his attention, is this: If the playwright's reality is based on his need, and if he is indeed lying to himself--inventing tragicomedies set in cheerful limbos to make his own life tolerable--then The Play About the Baby may indeed represent the playwright avenging his earliest and deepest psychological wounds. Yes, the piece could be Albee soothing his inner baby. Maybe Brian Cronin, who designed the production logo, understood as much; his drawing has a baby growing from the side of a man's head, as if it were an idea sprouting from or reentering an author's mind.

Whether or not Albee in The Play About the Baby is wrestling with parts of himself he'd just as soon repress, he hasn't pinned his script to the mat with complete success. As is usually the case with him, he puts dialogue in the heads of bitter sophisticates that is both droll and dire. In Boy and Girl--who come across as Nick and Honey to the George and Martha of Man and Woman--he draws two perfectly credible naifs, but he doesn't quite know how to make any of these four figures cogent through two acts. In fact, he runs so short of inspiration that, after the break, Man does an extraneous stand-up routine about intermissions and then calls for a reenactment of act one's last minutes. Albee might as well have Man bring out a sign saying, "Idea Lapse." And when Boy and Girl face up to (away from?) their loss, they do so with not altogether convincing haste.

It may be that these flaws don't register until considered in retrospect; director David Esbjornson conceals them by keeping his actors so constantly on the qui vive. Led by Seldes, they oblige with fleet turns. Brian Murray, portly and graceful as he can be, occasionally wears the furrowed look of a man asked to impart information he wishes were more explicit but, otherwise, he is cunningly dapper and diabolical. David Burtka and Kathleen Early are so fresh, it seems as if they were plucked from a bed of cabbage roses just minutes before the lights go up. In their subsequent disillusionment, they have the air of a couple who have just made the wrong turn on a foggy path and find themselves falling over a precipice.

One thing that definitely can be said of The Play About the Baby is that Albee delivers what the work's title promises. Whatever else it's about won't be learned here, or from Albee himself. But, sometimes, there's pleasure to being kept in the dark.