* Written by Edward Albee * Directed by David Esbjornson * Starring Brian Murray, Marian Seldes, David Burtka, and Kathleen Early * Century Center for the Performing Arts, NYC (open run)

Edward Albee’s plays have always floated between naturalistic representations of contemporary life and the symbolic realm. His frosty married couples having bitchfights and nervous breakdowns in smart living rooms are often only masks for forces that struggle inside the human psyche -- spiritual questions about faith and doubt, or psychological torments about identity and reality. Viewing these plays, American audiences tend to be, well, American. We like things earnest, straightforward, and direct; we like to take things at face value, and we distrust mysticism and abstraction, because we’re insecure about missing the point and feeling stupid.

*The Play About the Baby*, at least in the handsome Off Broadway production staged by David Esbjornson, skips the living room altogether and sticks to the allegorical level. It’s classic Albee, a throwback to the type of plays he and others were writing in the early 1960s, before *Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?* It’s the kind of mordantly comic exercise in existential philosophy that the term “Theater of the Absurd” was invented to describe. John Arnone’s set consists of two big baby blocks, a gigantic pacifier, and a rocking horse and baby carriage suspended from the ceiling. The characters are Boy and Girl, a young fresh-faced married couple with a new baby, and Man and Woman, two sophisticated older people who steal the baby and then convince the youngsters there never was a baby.

The two couples clearly represent Youth and Age, Innocence and Experience. David Burtka’s Boy and Kathleen Early’s Girl, who display their lovely bodies in not one but two naked romps across the stage, might as well have Adam and Eve painted across their butts. Brian Murray’s Man and Marian Seldes’s Woman are the same figures After The Fall, now in the guise of George Burns and Gracie Allen, the gruff-voice wisecracker and his ditsy female sidekick.

Underneath their vaudevillean shtick, an archetypal human drama unfolds. Something happens to a girl or boy to initiate them into adulthood, and it’s usually loss. Death, rejection, failure, disappointment, a dream smashed to smithereens -- whatever it is, it’s a hard lesson to learn, and life looks different on the other side, not so rosy yet somehow more humorous and forgiving. What the play has to say isn’t especially new or earth-shattering but it’s still worth thinking about. If you have a “baby” (a hope, a dream, an attachment to youth and beauty), terrible things will happen. Your life is a test to see if you can take it.

The charming production makes this bitter pill easy to take. If the younger pair are no more than pretty and blank, Murray makes a sly and trustworthy master of ceremonies, and Seldes is an absolute riot. Rolling her eyes, licking her chops, and interpreting Murray’s speeches with hilariously fake sign language, she sets the tone of Albee’s play, halfway between serious and send-up. Although the characters are ostensibly heterosexual, Albee the gay elder statesman drops a few beads with his numerous phallic references and that giant pacifier’s invitation to suck, which I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed.

The Advocate, February 27, 2001

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