Monday, April 2, 2018

193 (2017-2018): Review: THREE TALL WOMEN (seen March 30, 2018)

“Three Terrific Actresses”

The 1993-1994 season was a distinguished one in New York theatre history, if only because it was when two major American plays, both recently revived, opened there. One was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, produced on Broadway, the other was Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, seen Off Broadway, and now on Broadway for the first time. Joe Mantello, who played Louis in the original Angels in America, interestingly, is now the director of Three Tall Women
Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
The return of the play, which won Albee his third Pulitzer Prize and re-lit his fading star, deserves celebration on its own merits, of course, but even more because of its three leading ladies in the roles of A. B, and C. These anonymous roles, first played by Myra Carter, Marian Seldes, and Jordan Baker, are now (the late Seldes aside) in the even starrier hands of Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Alison Pill.

Metcalf and Pill, of course, are among our busiest actresses, on both stage and screen, so we take their gifted presences for granted. If you’re a theatre lover (and even if you’re not), however, you should be rushing to get tickets so you can bask in the radiance of the 81-year-old Jackson, returning to the boards after a quarter of a century layoff while she busied herself with more mundane duties as the Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Kilburn. 
Glenda Jackson. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Jackson made an indelible impression on me (and countless others) even before she became a star when I saw her 53 years ago in Peter Brook’s visiting production of Marat/Sade. The image of her whipping Ian Richardson’s Marat with her long hair as he reclined in his tub is as vivid as if I’d seen it yesterday. I won’t live another 53 years, of course, but, however long it is, I suspect that the memory of her electric performance in Three Tall Women will always be good for a tingle.

Wearing a silver, marcelled wig, her lips a bright splash of red across her deeply lined, heavily powdered face, her slender frame with its fragile bones connected to a spine of steel, she is A, a wealthy, cantankerous, 92-year-old matriarch (she maintains she’s only 91). Dressed in nightshift and dressing gown, she’s at home in her elegantly appointed bedroom, beautifully designed by Miriam Buether and lit by Paul Gallo. Her arm in a sling, she sits in an upholstered armchair while holding court in the company of two other women. The first half of the play is dominated by her and her memories.
Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
The other women are B (Metcalf), 52, A’s hard-working, paid companion, wearing slacks and blouse, and C (Pill), 26, a pretty, blonde attorney. C, dressed smartly in a well-tailored business ensemble of black jacket, skirt, and heels, is there to sort out the old lady’s messy legal paperwork.
Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
When the play is dominated by A and her memories, she’s an imperious, queenly figure, but she’s also incontinent, demanding, complaining (everyone’s out to rob her, she often gripes), homophobic, anti-Semitic, and self-contradictory. 

At times she appears to be suffering from dementia only for her to remember experiences—such as those regarding how she dealt with men and married into money—in great detail or to make bitingly funny remarks. At one point, she provides a hilariously risqué monologue about her husband’s “pee-pee” and a diamond bracelet that brings to mind Jerry’s monologue about the dog in Albee’s The Zoo Story.
Alison Pill. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
B, while fully aware of A’s difficulty, acts as her mediator, assuming a wryly cynical, water-off-a-duck’s back acceptance of A’s inconsistencies and rampant bitchiness, which she humors, while doing everything she can to make A comfortable. The impatient C, however, is increasingly frustrated by A’s contrariness, and, to her own disappointment, unwilling to “be nice.”

We also learn that A has a son, but that there’s a coolness between him and his mother; the situation, which becomes more stringently apparent later, when the wordless son himself appears, reflects Albee’s own bitter relationship with his adoptive mother, who refused to accept his homosexuality, regardless of his literary fame.

Part one ends with A suffering a stroke. There’s no intermission between the two parts of this hour and 45-minute play, but when the second half begins, a dummy of A lies in the bed, while the women appear in glamorous dresses (for which the great veteran, Ann Roth, is responsible).
Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
C now represents A in her 20s, B in her 50s, and A in her energetic 70s. At the same time, they have about them something of the characters they played in the first part, but never too obviously. The set, too, has been altered so that the bed’s headboard has been removed and the rear wall is mirrored to reflect the audience.
Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
B and C contemplate the invalid in the bed, commenting on their respective views of ending up like her, or even the optimistic C’s becoming the world-weary B. Gradually, the audience realizes that B and C are younger versions of A, who soon enters herself, decked out in a fancy lavender dress, and no longer the sometimes irrational, uncomfortable character of part one.

While it’s impossible to accept on a literal level the idea that these three sharply different characters could actually be the same person, you can enjoy Albee’s conceit only if you accept his broader vision about how people evolve over time, sometimes radically, perhaps even having trouble recognizing earlier versions of themselves.

As they converse, waiting for A’s death, B and C recall the parts of her life they experienced, including their gay son, who walked out many years ago and, while never forgiven by B, found a kind of reconciliation with A. This becomes clear when he (uncredited) silently materializes at his mother’s bedside.

This prompts a discussion of how each version of A, in turn, changed over the years, and how, because of the lies we’re told, no one is prepared for the changes that come to all of us. Soon, the women contemplate which part of life is the happiest, the final hint suggesting that, perhaps, it comes when life is drawing to its end.

Listening to Albee’s thoughts, sometimes blazingly clear, sometimes tantalizingly cloudy, and often burst out-laughing funny, expressed by these masterful actresses produces solidly satisfying theatre.

Jackson’s razor-sharp diction and her commanding voice, more distinctive than ever, makes her every utterance a gem; she can bring the house down with a single throwaway word. A four-time Tony nominee, Jackson should be a favorite to finally land the trophy this time around. Metcalf, again as flawless as the Hope diamond, brings her distinctive human warmth and sense of humor to B, while rising star Pill makes even the less fully developed C deliciously easy to swallow.

Three Tall Women is essentially plotless theatre but the humming motor of its performance and the perceptive wisdom of its dialogue prevent any hint of creeping stasis. Joe Mantello and his cast faced a tall order and delivered the goods.


Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St., NYC
Open run