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The Wizards of Lizards

Playwright Edward Albee and director Mark Lamos discuss the Broadway revival of Seascape logo
George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen
in Seascape
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Edward Albee is famous for being forthright, so let's say it upfront; two of the four characters in the eminent playwright's Seascape are reptiles who crawl out of the ocean. The other two are an elderly couple on the beach who encounter them. If you've never seen the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, you now have a chance to do so: Lincoln Center Theater is mounting a new production directed by Mark Lamos, now in previews at the Booth Theatre in advance of a November 21 opening. The humans, Charlie and Nancy, are played by Tony Award winners George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen, while Elizabeth Marvel and Frederick Weller are Sarah and Leslie, the visitors from the sea.

Lizards? "This is an absolutely naturalistic play," says Albee. "A few weeks ago, I was asked what the lizards represent. I said they represent lizards. They are not metaphors; they are real. Real people, real lizards." When the two species face off in the play, they reassess matters that they have always taken for granted. "The lizards come up and learn a great number of things that humans exist with that they don't like, such as cruelty and sadness," Albee continues. "That was partly the reason why the play was written: to examine the virtues of humanity over other animals, if indeed there are virtues."

The reptiles are propelled by some inexplicable instinct to leave the ocean, which Charlie attempts to explain as part of evolution -- a hot-button issue for today's audiences "We have to worry about the Creationists, do we not?" says Albee wryly. "And Intelligent Design, that's an intellectual cop-out. They want the worst of both worlds! It is nice that the play was sort of ahead of its time, but I've always done a lot of reading in science and anthropology."

Indeed, the genesis of Seascape dates back to 1967, the year Albee won the first of his three Pulitzers for A Delicate Balance. He began writing two short plays, one about life and the other about death. They were initially intended as companion pieces but eventually went their separate ways; the "death play" became All Over and the other became Seascape. The latter touches upon a frequent Albee theme: how characters become more charged with life upon reflecting on their inevitable mortality. In the play, Nancy is angry at her husband Charlie for saying that he feels he has earned a little rest. "We've earned a little life," she responds. That sentiment is pure Albee: "I think we should be as fully alive as we possibly can," he remarks. "The fact that so many people come to the end of their lives and discover they haven't lived it is a great waste."

Edward Albee
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
In the original 1975 production of Seascape, Nancy and Charlie were played by Deborah Kerr and Barry Nelson, both in their early 50s. (The lizards were played by Maureen Anderman and Frank Langella, who won a Tony Award for his performance.) Grizzard and Sternhagen are in their mid-70s. "I think older is better," the playwright notes laconically. While Albee asserts that he never writes roles with specific actors in mind -- "because that way you don't write a character, you write a role" -- he acknowledges that his first choice for Nancy in the original production was Helen Hayes, who was then nearly 75. The "First Lady of the American Stage" turned him down, he recalls, because "she couldn't handle the dust on stage and wasn't going to act on stage anymore."

Throughout Albee's career, many people have commented on his uncanny ability to accurately limn characters who were much older than himself. After all, he was in his mid-thirties when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? debuted, and barely into his forties when he started writing Seascape. "There are things in this play that only an older couple who have been together for many, many years would say to each other," comments Mark Lamos. "It's just small things in the interstices between major moments that are so superbly drawn, like, 'Do you want to have your nap? Cover your face if you do.' " Albee, who is now 77, makes a typically ironic statement about this so-called facility of his: "Sometimes, my characters are a lot more intelligent than I am and probably had things figured out that I was not aware I had figured out. But if you go around observing people, you learn things about them. Now, of course, it's hard to write about people older than I am."

No matter who he's writing about, Albee's words are to be treasured, says Lamos: "One of the things that is so wonderful about his writing is that you are enthralled when you listen to it. I think a key to that enthrallment is actually the way he puts words together. They are not the way we really speak. There is, in the best sense of the word, an artifice to the speeches and to the dialogue as well. Sometimes, actors will stop cold in rehearsal and say, 'Why am I saying it this way? It sounds backwards', or, 'I'm not really answering this question' -- all of which is quite intentional and keeps the listener on his or her aural toes."

Mark Lamos
Albee demands total fidelity to his texts. "I do like all my lines spoken, all my words in the order in which I wrote them, with proper punctuation," he says. But an oft-told story about Seascape illustrates that he can edit himself when he sees fit. As best as anyone can tell -- and Albee has stuck to the same story for some 20 years now -- the original version of the play included a long scene in which the lizards took the humans back with them to their underwater domain. But Albee, who also directed the first Broadway production of the play, removed that entire section the day after rehearsals began. "The first reading was of a three-act play and the second reading was of a two-act play," he says. "This is better."

Says Albee, "I want any production of a play of mine to be as accurate to the author's intention as possible." So it's not surprising that he's entrusted this revival to Lamos, who directed Tiny Alice (starring Richard Thomas) in 1998 at Hartford Stage and then two years later at Second Stage in New York, as well as another production of Seascape at Hartford Stage in 2002 (also with Grizzard).

At one rehearsal of the current Seascape that Albee attended, Lamos kept a copy of the script by his side, which his assistant insured was always turned to the right page in relation to the progress of the lines as they were spoken by the actors. "All of a sudden, Edward groaned, 'It's too loud,' " Lamos relates. "I picked up the text and the line in question was in caps, followed by exclamation points, with the stage direction 'Thunder.' There was silence next to me, and the play went on. Then he reached over and wrote in my pad, 'The Memory of Thunder.' When the rehearsal was over, he asked me, 'What do you think of that comeback?' I said, 'It was so you, Edward. You always try to get your own way.' "

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