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The Lady from Dubuque

Edward Albee's play about a woman dying of cancer gets an unnecessary revival.

By New York City
Laila Robbins and Jane Alexander
in The Lady from Dubuque
(© Joan Marcus)
Laila Robbins and Jane Alexander
in The Lady from Dubuque
(© Joan Marcus)
At the beginning of Edward Albee's famed 1980 flop The Lady from Dubuque, now being unnecessarily revived by the Signature Theatre Company, Sam (Michael Hayden) -- the host of a party where a game of "Twenty Questions" is in full swing -- asks "Who Am I?" And before the piece finishes, the title character (played by Jane Alexander) declares in significantly apocalyptic manner that the most important question a misguided earthling can pose is "Who Am I?"

Clearly, Albee intends these comments to indicate the depths of his dramaturgical probing of the human condition, but as in many of his lesser works, his characters end up sounding merely portentous throughout most of this hollowly intense two-act play.

In addition to Sam, the "Twenty Questions" players are Sam's so-called friends Fred (C. J. Wilson), his girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), the married Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), and Sam's wife, Jo (the always excellent Laila Robins), whose verbal cruelty is meant to be understood in the context of her terminal case of cancer.

Once the kick-off game finishes, the so-called friends attack each other with figurative knives bared to the point that rational ticket buyers have to be asking the same question they've asked of Nick and Honey in Albee's far superior Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: "Why do they stay?" And the answer appears, if they didn't, there would be no first act.

Only at the end of the excruciating sequence -- and just before the Act I curtain -- does the woman who eventually identifies herself as the Lady from Dubuque show up. She's wearing a shawl on which semi-abstract, angel-like wings are scrawled, and she's trailied by her unctuously suave escort Oscar (Peter Francis James).

Making it plain -- to the audience, if not to Albee's thick-headed characters -- that she's no "lady from Dubuque," (the term, as is explained in the show, derives from Harold Ross' description of the kind of person who would not read The New Yorke but some surreal, celestial figure, she sets about easing pain-ridden Jo into the next life. As she does, the others rail and flail around her, the worst of them being Sam, who is eventually reduced to gibbering in total "Who am I?" confusion.

But try as the hard-working cast might under David Esjbornson's direction, they can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In the end, these obscure theatrics add up to very little -- and very little worth watching.


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