BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque” opens with a group of friends playing Twenty Questions, which certainly is fitting for an intriguing dark comedy regarding identity and matters of life and death.
The lady in question is played by Jane Alexander in Signature Theatre’s revival of Albee’s enigmatic 1980 play, which inaugurated the End Stage space of the company’s new three-theater complex on Monday.
Although Alexander’s presence lends great charm to this (as well as any other) occasion, director David Esbjornson's able production cannot clear up the mysteries lurking within the play’s latter parts. But then, Albee’s delicate balancing act of meaningful themes is not meant to be explicated so much as savored.
When the play premiered at the long-gone Morosco Theatre with Irene Worth in the title role, critics generally were not receptive to the drama’s Pirandello-like qualities and the production closed quickly. Nowadays, with Signature’s audiences better appreciative than most of Albee’s significantly playful ways, “The Lady from Dubuque” emerges as a stimulating study in perception and understanding.
Composed in the playwright’s characteristically detached style, the situation unfolds one night in a classy suburban house, where Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) are entertaining their chums Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan), Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), Fred (C.J.Wilson) and Carol (Tricia Paoluccio). The brittle get-the-guests banter is troubled by everyone’s awareness that Jo is dying.
Late in the first act, after Jo suffers a seizure and the pals have departed, there arrives a distinctive couple in the form of the regal Elizabeth (Alexander) and her courtly escort Oscar (Peter Francis James). The lady claims to be the comatose Jo’s mother – here to comfort her -- but Sam doesn’t buy it.
The second act then encompasses a range of typically Albee-esque themes about identity, mortality, reality, consciousness and the roles we play in life and death. The playwright remains fairly cryptic about it all – one suspects that Albee’s reach at times exceeds his craft here -- but these glimmering mysteries give viewers plenty to think and talk about afterwards. (Signature’s airy lobby handily provides a wine and coffee bar just for that purpose.)