What Baby?

When I think of Edward Albee, two particularly pungent quotes come to mind: "I have a fine sense of the ridiculous," says American theater's perennial bad boy, "but no sense of humor."

If you catch Albee's witty, challenging The Play About the Baby, which is receiving its Florida premiere at GableStage in Coral Gables, you won't be able to give this sound bite much credence. Albee has always designed his plays to provoke, not to soothe. This Play is no exception, but it does happen to be quite funny. So why doesn't he seem to think so? I suspect Albee likes his reputation as the Eeyore of American playwrights, chewing on his thistles and paying little heed (or so he'd like us to think) to the raves or rants of others. His plays are deliberately enigmatic and confounding, with a thinly disguised contempt for the posh, comfortable audiences that frequent them. To accept himself as humorist might be a near admission that he gives his audience pleasure along with the pain he inflicts.

The story line, such as it is, concerns a generic young couple, Boy and Girl, who await the birth of their child. Moments into the story, the girl exits, screams and groans in childbirth, then reenters with their bundle of joy. Boy and Girl (Nick Bixby and Claire Tyler) are naïve sexual beings, taken to frolicking in the nude. Girl is happy with new baby at her breast while Boy reveals he also has a taste for mother's milk and takes more than one turn at Girl's nipple himself. Problems arise when Boy and Girl are visited by Man and Woman (John Felix and Cynthia Caquelin), an older, sophisticated couple who offers the young couple some advice about love, life, and loss in a series of dazzling monologues. But the genial charm belies something more sinister. While Man distracts the couple, Woman slips off-stage. Girl senses something's amiss and rushes off only to find the baby gone. Not to worry, the older couple soothes -- there really isn't any baby after all.

Albee's wisp of a plot bears echoes of many of his plays. The baby/no baby recalls Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The mysterious strangers hearken to A Delicate Balance. And the psychological menace is consistent with every one of his works.

Albee uses dramatic conventions to serve his own thematic purposes. He takes the structure of a well-made play and scours out everything but the plot structure and that most melodramatic of premises, the theft of a baby, to construct the form of a drama but not its substance. The protagonists, Boy and Girl, are established but only as types, with stilted language. The antagonists, Man and Woman, are introduced but not explained. The problem in the play is clearly set up by intermission: The baby is missing! But by the time the climax arrives late in the second act when... well, Albee doesn't give it all away, and neither will I.

In essence, The Play About the Baby is about the triumph of theatricality -- that dangerously seductive force -- over dramatic truth, which Albee appears to view as the too-comfortable shelter for his sworn foe, bourgeois sentimentality. Man and Woman are theatrical conceits, not "real" characters. Constantly addressing and joking with the audience, Man and Woman defy dramatic convention, commenting on the stage action and making jokes about the audience's activities during intermission. They even repeat scenes, acting as stage managers, chatting up the audience, drawing attention at every turn to the artifice of the stage. Albee continually opts to keep the audience's expectations off-balance. He knows that audiences tend to seek out emotional and logical comfort zones, despite all evidence. Girl's pregnancy and birth are obviously phony. The baby is in utero one moment, a mass of baby blankets the next. Tyler as Girl is lithe and sexual -- not exactly realistic for a just-birthed mother. But the audience's quest for emotional connection skips right over reality to accept "make-believe" truth. There is a baby in this story, all right, but none in the theatrical event: it may be an emotional essential, but it's really just a prop.

This three-way war among truth, illusion, and illusion-as-truth is as old as the theater. Shakespeare took many a shot at it and might have been on Albee's mind when The Play About the Baby was written -- he certainly references Shakespeare more than once. But Albee's true sources are more Continental: His absurdist tendencies come straight from Camus, Sartre, and Ionesco, his didacticism from the French classicists. Albee comes as an avenging angel, not a healing one. He isn't bringing epiphany or balm like Tennessee Williams or Lanford Wilson; he swings a flaming sword, laying waste to American philistinism. Albee's aesthetics haven't changed much over the years; his bourgeois targets of the 1960s and '70s have been pretty well worked over by now. But he's still smarter by half than most of his audiences, who apparently don't even realize the enduring hostility he has for them under the laugh lines.

Albee seems much less interested in talking than in listening. Like his French forebears, he's really a propagandist, more polemicist than poet. He flings ideas at you and doesn't bother to give opposing views much credence or respect. Man and Woman have all the epigrams and wit. Boy and Girl are witless, hapless breeders without a clue, let alone a rejoinder. They exist for Man and Woman to dominate verbally. It's akin to watching a fur hunter bludgeon a baby seal.

Despite all this, I'll take Albee any day. I'm happy to drag my lazy bones out to a theatrical production that challenges something more than just my wallet. Predictable, comfortable pabulum can be had 24/7 on television, in Congress, and most anywhere one cares to look. So a good dose of Albee is a welcome refresher; his work demands a lot from its audience, not only to surrender expectations about story and emotional involvement but to risk making individual conclusions. There is no clear, obvious way to respond to this material -- and that may leave many playgoers uncomfortable.

It's supposed to. But the pleasures here are many. Joe Adler's crisp, lean staging seems perfectly balanced between a playful style and an unsettling creepiness, both bright and cold by turns. He directs carefully but in an understated way. Nothing is explicated, nothing underscored. And nothing is predictable. As soon as the production seems to settle into a groove, Adler is willing to take it into a hairpin turn. If audiences find themselves leaning back in their seats, it's not from complacency; it's from sheer g force. The design component here is outstanding. Jeff Quinn's set, a faux plank floor and a blue wall with white painted clouds, emphasizes the play's theatricality, using a cutout proscenium arch complete with a large baby head as a bas-relief centerpiece for a literal framing device. Daniela Schwimmer's costume design, with electric blues and pinks, nicely abets Adler's off-kilter vision.

As per usual, Adler works with a top-flight cast, one that reportedly received Albee's approval as a condition for production. As Man and Woman, Felix and Caquelin dominate the proceedings with a terrific blend of charm and menace. Felix is an avuncular huckster, reassuring and jolly one moment, then brutally sadistic the next. Caquelin's grace masks something even more frightening. She seems at once capable of anything and capable of regret. As Boy and Girl, Bixby and Tyler offer naïve, flummoxed charm. These roles must have been remarkably difficult to rehearse. Felix and Caquelin, in particular, are working without a net. Their characters are total artifice with no personal history -- all presentation, no representation. When Man and Woman walk out on-stage, it's as if they are entering their own talk show rather than a conventional play, carrying the evening on the strength of their charisma. Meanwhile, Bixby and Tyler have an inverse problem: maintaining a grounded emotional truth amid the theatrical chaos.

The bottom line: The Play About the Baby isn't just an intellectual exercise; it turns theater into a contact sport. You'll enjoy wrestling with its implications.

Oh, I almost forgot: The other Albee quote? "If Attila the Hun were alive today, he'd be a drama critic."