Watching Edward Albee’s dark comedies The American Dream and The Sandbox, now at the Cherry Lane Theatre, can’t be the same today as coming up against them when they were written almost 50 years ago. Since they first jolted audiences into sitting up and taking notice, they’ve influenced too many subsequent plays, just as they were influenced by the Absurdist playwrights preceding them in the late 40’s and 50’s. But though they’ve lost a sizable chunk of their shock value, these one-acts still offer their own rewards especially as directed by the hardly mellower octogenarian playwright himself — at the same theatre where The American Dream fist bowed.
That they now possess a patina of nostalgia is less significant than the importance they take on as introducing Albee’s abiding theme: the stultifying American family. In The American Dream, Mommy (Judith Ivey) conducts a mostly one-sided conversation with Daddy (George Bartenieff) on Neil Patel’s ironically patriotic red-white-and-blue set until crotchety, plain-speaking Grandma (Lois Markle) joins them. Almost instantly, they’re interrupted by Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler), who may be the woman who 20 years before arranged their adoption of a son. That supposedly dead boy could be their last visitor, a strapping lad identified only as Young Man (Harmon Walsh).
In the 1959 Sandbox — written prior to 1960’s American Dream but now serving as its inevitable coda — Mommy and Daddy have changed out of Carrie Robbins’ red-white-and-blue duds into mourning-black for an outing on the beach. They’ve brought Grandma along in order to deposit her in the sandbox of the title where they hope she’ll know enough to expire. Before that event occurs, however, the trio engage with a cellist (Daniel Shevlin) sawing away in the background as well as with another buff Young Man (Jesse Williams), who spends his on-stage tenure raising and lowering his muscular arms — and who turns out to be more than he initially seemed.
Through both plays, Mommy and Daddy are, to say the least, unsympathetic. While Bartenieff’s Daddy often passes the ticking minutes banging his fists on his thighs, Mommy chatters away scornfully. “People think they can get away with anything these days and of course they can,” Mommy says and then blithely adds to the all-encompassing put-downs, “I went to buy a new hat yesterday.” It’s one of the non sequiturs Albee includes to lampoon her superficial mind. Her contrary nature, however, doesn’t stop her from giving the glad-eye to the Young Man present as she had to the previous Young Man.
By now, Albee knows his early plays so well that he’s up to directing them efficiently, even if he’s not inclined to notice The American Dream is overwritten — and always has been — while the opposite is true of The Sandbox. If memory serves, this production has the same unpolished look as the original that was a circa-1960 combination of limited budgets and a desire to eschew the slickness of traditional (read “uptown”) theater.
As for the cast, Ivey confers the right misguided authority on Mommy, and Bartenieff keeps Daddy appropriately minimal. Lois Markle (a late replacement for the indisposed Myra Carter), Kathleen Butler, and the three men land at various spots on the acting spectrum. Nonetheless, the whole affair connects.
Still, the major impression with which an Albee fan will leave is how solidly in place Albee’s need was to work out his psychological knots as an adopted child — and how strong that compulsion has remained for almost 50 years. It now seems almost an after-thought that he’s made theatergoers everywhere the lucky beneficiaries of his obsessive search for psychic balm.