The Pershing Square Signature Center
The End Stage Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through April 15, $75
A Broadway bomb in 1980 when it ran for only twelve performances at the Morosco Theatre (with a cast that included Irene Worth, Earle Hyman, Tony Musante, and Frances Conroy), Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque is back in a splendid revival as the inaugural production at the Signature's End Stage Theatre, where it has been extended through April 15. Set in the present day, the play is built around the question of personal identity; both acts begin with games of “Who am I?” that set the stage for existential arguments that grow ever more surreal. As the show begins, Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) are hosting a small gathering of friends in their swanky home, trying to take everyone’s mind off of Jo’s worsening terminal illness, but Jo will not let them forget as she makes endlessly snide and mean-spirited comments about everything and everyone. While the thrice-married professional redneck Fred (C. J. Wilson) and his younger floozy girlfriend, Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), can dish it out and take it, the more mild-mannered and naive Lucinda (Catherine Curtin) and her sensitive husband, Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan), have a harder time dealing with the abuse. The tenor of the play changes at the end of the first act with the sudden arrival of the elegantly dressed title character (Jane Alexander) and her regal, erudite companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James), who introduce a whole different kind of party game.
No one explores relationships between couples like Albee, whose work has earned him three Pulitzer Prizes (A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women) and two Tonys for Best Play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?). The heart of The Lady from Dubuque is Sam’s deep love for Jo and his intense fear of losing her. Played with an intelligent complexity by Hayden, Sam desperately needs to protect her, whether she wants him to or not, and when that protection is threatened by Oscar and the lady from Dubuque, he reacts with anger that results in bizarre violence and increasing levels of absurdity. James and Alexander lend an austere presence to the proceedings, with Alexander initially taking the stage like the grand dame of the theater that she is. Directed by David Esbjornson, the play features the characters regularly turning to the audience, acknowledging the presence of the crowd almost as if they are guests at the party. The night we saw the show, an audience member actually answered a character’s rhetorical question out loud, inviting laughs from everyone in the Frank Gehry-designed theater. Bitingly sarcastic, wickedly funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, The Lady from Dubuque is a stirring party that is well worth attending.