Signature Plays Review: Edward Albee, Maria Irene Fornés, Adrienne Kennedy Revisited

The Sandbox 3 Ryan-James Hatanaka and Phyllis SomervilleThe three short plays that Signature Theater is reviving together in a single production – Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, Maria Irene Fornés’ Drowning, and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro – are all old works of American avant-garde theater by playwrights who helped define Off-Broadway. The plays are frequently studied, and far less frequently performed.
That – and the $25 ticket price – is surely enough of a draw for the serious theatergoer. It takes some effort to see a thematic connection among the three plays, which is Signature’s final offering of its 25th anniversary season, a kind of farewell to founding artistic director James Houghton, who championed each of these playwrights. But the plays, all directed by Lila Neugebauer, do share the stage language of American experimental theater of a certain era (although written 25 years apart.) And all of them seem to have been written out of anger.

In “The Sandbox,” which Albee wrote at the beginning of his career in 1959, a middle-aged couple – domineering Mommy (Alison Fraser) and acquiescent Daddy (Frank Wood) brings the woman’s mother (Phyllis Somerville) to a sandbox, and dumps her there, waiting for her to die. A cellist (Melody Giron) plays music (suitable for a funeral?) A dim but cheerful young man in a bathing suit (Ryan-James Hatanaka) does calisthenics throughout the entire play. By the end, he seems to be the angel of death, albeit a cheerful and helpful one.
Written “in memory of my grandmother,” who died that year, “The Sandbox” seems a clear metaphor for our patronizing attitudes towards our elderly – the way we treat them like infants, and wait for them to die – as part of what would become clearer later in his career as his overall critique of middle class America.

In “Drowning,” which Maria Irene Fornés
wrote in 1986, three actors wear heavy brown heads that make them look like poor relations to Jabba the Hutt or maybe decrepit grandparents of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are sitting at a table in what could be a train terminal. Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) sounds naïve enough to be a toddler, or even an alien from outer space – he doesn’t know what a snowman is, or indeed what snow is. But he is in fact made of human flesh, as the wiser Roe (Sahr Ngaujah) points out. Pea is smitten with a girl whose photograph he sees in a newspaper, and wants to meet her “in the flesh.” In the next scene, Pea has met the woman, and she found him repulsive, pushing him away. The effect is devastating to Pea. “I am not a person,” he says. “Look at my skin.” His despondency is how we know he is a person, despite his dermatological condition, especially when he says: “Is this why we have come to life? To love like this? And hurt like this?” There is something childlike not just about Pea, but about the story, but that simplicity may make Fornés’ observations all the more clear – about the emotional effect of rejection, and of prejudice.

Click on any photograph by Monique Carboni to see it enlarged.

“Funnyhouse of a Negro,” which Adrienne Kennedy wrote in 1964, was her first and remains her best-known play. It is the longest of the three on the program, the most elaborately designed, and the one most resistant to easy summarizing. Sarah (Crystal Dickinson) lives on the Upper West Side “in a small room on the top floor of a brownstone…. am graduated from a city college and have occasional work in libraries, but mostly spend my days preoccupied with the placement and geometric position of words on paper. I write poetry filling white page after white page with imitations of Edith Sitwell.” The use of the adjective “white” is not accidental. Sarah (identified in the playbill as “Negro-Sarah) is obsessed with the color of her skin; her father was dark-skinned, her mother light-skinned. She resented her father. Both her parents apparently went insane. Of these facts we can be reasonably assured since they’re backed up by Sarah’s landlady (Alison Fraser.) But among the other characters in “Funnyhouse of a Negro” there is Queen Victoria Regina (April Matthis), the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy), Patrice Lumumba (Sahr Ngaujah), the democratically elected leader of the Congo who was assassinated in 1961, and Jesus (Mikeah Ernest Jennings.) Much of what’s on stage, in other words, is happening in Sarah’s head, which explains the swirl of sentences endlessly repeated, and the nightmarish imagery.

How well do these plays hold up? They’re at the very least fascinating as period pieces. They are also undoubtedly more accessible to audiences generally than they were initially, thanks to greater familiarity with the genre. Director Lila Neugebauer gives all three a competent production; she and her design team are especially effective in the stagecraft of Kennedy’s play. It’s harder for me to judge the acting, since the intent of these playwrights was to keep us from naturalism, and the director’s aim seems above all to respect their intent.

This makes sense. Adrienne Kennedy is now 84 years old. Maria Irene Fornes is 86. Albee is 88 now, older than the discarded Grandma in The Sandbox. They deserve the respect.


Signature Plays

Edward Albee’s The Sandbox,

Maria Irene  Fornés’ Drowning

Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro

Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott
Production Stage Manager: Marisa Levy

Cast: Nicholas Bruder

Crystal Dickinson
Alison Fraser
Melody Giron
Pia Glenn
Ryan-James Hatanaka
Mikéah Ernest Jennings
January LaVoy
April Matthis
Sahr Ngaujah
Phyllis Somerville
Frank Wood

Tickets: $25

Signature Plays is scheduled to run through June 12, 2016.

Update: Signature Plays have been extended to June 19. In the last week, the price of a ticket ranges from $30 to $65.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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