Thursday, May 27, 2010
Theater review: Everything in the Garden at Cox Building Playhouse in Plano
It seems to me Edward Albee exploits the improbable and/or inexplicable because it corresponds with actual lapses in our values and inability to reach one another as humans in polite society. A spontaneous boxing match between a husband and wife becomes occasion for diminishment (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) a failed connection between a lonely bachelor and a vicious dog becomes a metaphor for male estrangement (The Zoo Story) the angel of death manifests as a beautiful, vapid surfer twink (The Sandbox). To put it differently, whenever the absurd pops up in an Albee text, it apparently signals a failure of society to accommodate anyone or any group that falls short or falls between the cracks. The fringe dwellers, weaklings and climbers. Much of Albee’s wry humor comes from the revelation that those who adhere to respectability are often every bit as damaged (if not more so) as the “losers” they disdain.
In Everything in the Garden (presented by Rover Dramawerks at the Cox Building Playhouse in Plano through June 12), Jenny and Richard are a sweet couple, not really struggling, but still yearning to attain the level of affluence enjoyed by their neighbors. They smoke cigarettes they don’t like for the coupon premiums, know the difference between the cost of domestic and imported vodka, and watch every nickel to keep their teenaged son Roger in private school. Clearly they believe in upward mobility but they still seem to appreciate pleasure over the jolt of acquisition. Their neighbor Jack is a bit eccentric, philosophical, introspective, and usually tipsy. Richard and Jenny don’t care that he’s a bit of an odd duck, and he functions both as legitimate character and metaphor. He’s wealthy enough to pay any conceivable debts, present and future, and thus able to sail through life without stress. Albee never points out that those who want to worry will usually find something, but Everything in the Garden is, after all, a fable about materialism and character, so we can probably check the box marked, “Not applicable.”
Without revealing too much else, Jenny and Richard receive a visit from Mrs. Toothe, a formidable British nanny type (perhaps more like Margaret Thatcher) who is frank, direct, and will scare the hell out of you. Mrs. Toothe has a business proposition for Jenny that will seriously alleviate, if not completely cure, their need for extra income. After some agonizing, Jenny concedes, without confiding to Richard, who refuses to let her find gainful employment. With Everything in the Garden being set somewhere between the late '50s to '60s (with its au courant jazz and outré glassy modern décor from back in the day) Richard’s attitude is not all that surprising. But even given the obvious differences between then and now, Everything in the Garden feels tremendously relevant, given the faltering economy and everyone scrounging to stay ahead of the bills. Once extra money starts rolling in, and Richard and Jenny start enjoying some creature comforts, they can entertain the friends they needed so urgently to impress. When they throw their first cocktail party, they learn more than perhaps they’d wished to.
It’s hard to know where to start when considering Albee’s gifts as a playwright. You can never tell when you’re being joshed or where you’re being led. His comedies masquerade as drama and his tragedies are laced with hilarity. His plots often carry that dreamlike quality of making the mundane terrifying and the terrifying mundane. A lurking sense of menace seems to gradually suffuse, as if odorless toxins were permeating the air without our knowledge. Albee will knock you off balance time and again, but you scarcely notice till you find yourself on your ass, gazing at the ceiling. In Albee’s fantasy land of bourgeois opulence, the appearance of class and props necessary for sustaining it are crucial. It’s not about evolving as humans, it’s about reaching the top of the food chain.
Director Lisa Devine brings her impeccable touch to this subtly volatile material, walking the precarious dividing line between dark social satire and disingenuous bathos. Appropriate tone is positively essential and Devine knows how to pull the most from Albee’s elusive, whimsical, stinging language. She guides the cast through this dark (strangely giddy) territory with agility and precision. The actors in this production of Everything in the Garden are absolutely submerged in their roles and the effect is stunning and unnerving. This is ensemble work of the highest degree. Noteworthy performers include: Carol Rice (Jenny), Jarod Warren (Richard), Matt Gunther (Jack), Mary Tiner (Mrs. Toothe) (Yikes!), Parker Conley (Roger), and Kelly More Clarkson (Beryl). The rest of this marvelous cast includes: Manuel Cruz (Chuck), Joe Porter (Gilbert), Amy Wells (Louise), Shannon Rasmussen (Cynthia), and Rich Machado (Perry).
Set Designer Kimberly Corbett and Costume Designer Suzi Cranford did their part to take us back to those naïve days when everything we needed to know about living happily could be found by watching sitcoms. Together they help to create a milieu that is both evanescent, sophisticated, yet effete.
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