Michael Learned and Rosemary Harris in All Over(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Michael Learned and Rosemary Harris in All Over
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
One of the most interesting--yet least written about--recent developments in theater is the longer line at men's rooms during intermission. The phenomenon is likely due to the graying of the theater audience and, more specifically, due to bladders of a certain age. As a result, small talk among gentleman in waiting is at an all-time high.

The most telling intermission remark overheard at one press preview of the current production of Edward Albee's All Over at the Roundabout was: "I'm looking forward to the old man's death"--this, by the way, from someone closer to his own death than to adolescence. He was referring to the unseen fellow that Albee has dying in an upstage alcove on what looks like the Great Bed of Ware. The terminal case is a powerful man about whom virtually nothing is learned during the course of the play; it becomes obvious that, when he breathes his last, All Over will be all over. Until then, those participating in the downstage deathwatch will talk not so much about the patriarch but about themselves, about their relationship to him and to each other.

The Roundabout's gabbers include Rosemary Harris as The Wife, Michael Learned as The Mistress, Pamela Nyberg as The Daughter, Patrick Garner as The Son, John Carter as The Best Friend, Bill Moor as The Doctor, and Myra Carter as The Nurse. How they do run on, and how they do get on each other's nerves! In a situation where the wife and the mistress are in the same room, it might be assumed that the two of them would be the worst combatants, but no; they're more like the wife and mistress in a French film. They get along well enough and even guardedly respect each other's position. In fact, their only disagreement is over disposition of the eventual corpse: The wife insists on burial while the mistress maintains that the soon-to-be-deceased wanted cremation.

The major flare-ups here are between the proper and patrician mother and her deeply dissatisfied children. The daughter is the touchier of the two and keeps harping at her mother, while the son says little, preferring to wallow in his own tub of low self-esteem. As for the best friend/family lawyer, the doctor and the nurse, they retain equanimity as they go about their jobs. The best friend has long wanted to marry the wife but accepts that he never will. The doctor, at 86, is only slightly weary of tending to the dying. The nurse, cigarette in hand, has put things in a perspective that keeps her contented.

Albee, who has more than once nodded at the conventions of Greek tragedy, does some vociferous head shaking in this play. In the manner of Sophocles and Euripides, he trots characters out, sets them in place, and has them deliver long speeches. (The word "ritual" is mentioned more than once, and it definitely applies.) Indeed, the wife and the mistress remain so long situated on divans placed on opposite sides of Thomas Lynch's intentionally grandiose set that they look as if they're about to set down roots. Among The wife's comments is a repeated phrase, "The little girl I was when he came to me," but she's not the only one recalling childhood. So does the mistress, who describes a perfect love affair she had at 15. And so do the middle-aged children, in one oblique way or another.

But the wife never elaborates on her youth, never reveals very much about herself at all. Neither do the mistress or the discontented son and daughter. Although they discourse on subjects that are alternately intriguing and tedious, they never divulge information that explains who they are and how they got to be where they are. Some of the background is, of course, implied, and some of it is drawn from Albee lore: the audience likely knows, because he has made it common knowledge, that he was adopted and raised in a rich household by unloving parents. But the playwright seems to have intentionally created a slice-of-life play in which people are overheard having conversations that don't necessarily fill in every telling biographical detail.

The choice to keep so much undisclosed is, however, what makes this work unsatisfying. Sure, some of the dialogue reveals the characters' longings and frustrations. This is especially true of the mistress, who, whenever she speaks up, exhibits a relaxed wisdom. In one speech, where she explains that she's independently wealthy and not the gold digger she knows the family assume she is, she gets one of the play's few laughs when she asks, "Don't you people ever take the trouble to scout?" No, they don't; that's part of their failing as human beings. But neither does Albee. He doesn't do the kind of scouting into these people's pasts that would satisfy an audience hungering to know more and thereby maintain their interest in what is otherwise an uninvolving, narcissistic, assemblage. Satisfying an audience has, however, never been one of Albee's chief goals; "Keep up with me or be damned," he often appears to be snarling between his frequently arcane lines.

John Carter, Michael Learned, Bill Moor, Patrick Garner,and Rosemary Harris in All Over(Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Carter, Michael Learned, Bill Moor, Patrick Garner,
and Rosemary Harris in All Over
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The current production has been transported to New York from Princeton's McCarter Theatre. Emily Mann, artistic director there, helmed the show and has to be the one responsible for its stately appearance. She presumably wanted to overcome the cool reception that the play received when it was first produced in 1971--with John Gielgud directing Jessica Tandy as The Wife and Colleen Dewhurst as The Mistress, no less. Mann has, indeed, brought out a dignity inherent in the work, with much help from the two tall leading women. Rosemary Harris in the Rosemary Harris role is as effective as ever, although it's got to be said that this is another part where she sits upright with her white hair pulled back and tied with a discreet ribbon. We know she'll be good, and she is, so what's new? Michael Learned as the mistress has the juicier task with more ear-catching things to say, and she says them with her usual authority.

The others, in Jennifer von Mayrhauser's appropriate costumes and under Allen Lee Hughes appropriate lights, are all up to the play's requirements. Patricia Nyberg is edgy and brittle as a woman onto her spiteful self and able to do little about it. Myra Carter's chatty nurse gives no-nonsense behavior a very good name. Patrick Garner is the right kind of chubby mouse and John Carter is the right kind of tall, limber one. Curiously, Bill Moor looks quite a bit like today's Edward Albee, which makes it seems as if he's espousing the author's most personal beliefs. When he declares that "Death is such an old disease," it seems as if Albee himself is making the tart remark.

If anyone has ever been a perfect example of the wheel-of-fortune aspect of theatrical careers, it's Albee. In recent years, he's been flying high, but the revival of his too-blabby-for-its-own-good All Over recalls one of several periods when this was not the case.