Friday, February 5, 2021

462. SEASCAPE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

Maureen Anderman, Frank Langella.

SEASCAPE [Comedy/Animals/Fantasy/Marriage/Sex] A/D: Edward Albee; S/L: James Tilton; C: Fred Voelpel; P: Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, Clinton Wilder; T: Sam S. Shubert Theatre; 1/26/75-3/22/75 (65)

Deborah Kerr, Barry Nelson.

Edward Albee won the Pulitzer Prize for this fanciful allegory, but few critics would have supported the decision to grant him the award, even though Clive Barnes’s Times review was headlined: “Seascape Is a Major Event.”

Nancy (Deborah Kerr) and Charlie (Barry Nelson) are attractive, youngish grandparents lounging on a beach and discussing life both in general and in particular. Every now and then a military jet roars overhead. Ennui has settled in. Charlie’s main ambition is to do nothing. Nancy’s is to go from one beach to another around the world. He recalls his secret teenage habit of sinking to the sea’s bottom, stones in his hands, and remaining there as long as possible. Their relationship is passive; sex is in retirement. Their kids have grown up and left the nest. An air of mild acrimony mars their discourse.

Maureen Anderman, Frank Langella, Deborah Kerr, Barry Nelson.

Then, as act one nears its end, a pair of strangers enters: two huge lizards with powerful lashing tails. The husband lizard is Leslie (Frank Langella), the wife Sarah (Maureen Anderman). They speak a highly educated-sounding English. Leslie and Sarah have come up from the sea for a breath of air and soon they and Nancy and Charlie are conversing about the differences between amphibian and human sex organs, married life, and so on.

Charlie almost frightens the reptilian pair back into the ocean with his comments about death, but this hurdle is cleared and Leslie and Sarah are convinced to remain on land and participate in their evolutionary duties. The play closes on Leslie’s tag: “Begin.” (Do I hear an echo of this at the end of Angels in America?)

 Barnes was the play's strongest supporter. Seascape, he wrote, is “a curiously compelling exploration into the basic tenets of life” in which “the tone of the writing is always thoughtful, even careful, even philosophic,” thereby helping to create “a play of great density, with many emotional and intellectual reverberations.” Bleaker opinions prevailed, however, as in Douglas Watt’s belief that there was “nothing especially stimulating about the occasion.” He thought the language was “more literary than dramatic. . . . The dialogue is urbane, occasionally witty, but stiff and artificial-sounding.” This view was shared by many.

“Albee seems drained of almost all vitality—theatrical, intellectual, artistic,” griped Jack Kroll, while John Simon called Seascape a work of “doughy verbiage, feebly quivering inaction, and grandly gesticulating pretentiousness.” 

The play’s meaning was disputed, Simon, for instance, saying that the lizards could represent “underprivileged minorities, upward mobility, √©lan vital . . . ; the human beings . . . the bourgeoisie, the declining West, the Establishment.”

Whatever its meaning, Seascape went under in two months.

Seascape was Albee’s first stab at directing his plays on Broadway; there was little argument over the acceptable quality of his staging. Movie star Deborah Kerr (returning to Broadway after a long absence) and Barry Nelson (one of Broadway's most reliable leading men) gave their usual high-quality performances, but the actors playing the creatures captured the most attention, especially Langella in his Broadway debut. His reptilian movements and expressive voice, despite his being encased in a costume covering him from head to foot, stole the show, as Watt declared. 

Barnes had this to say of Langella and Anderman:

To my amazement I note from the playbill that this is Frank Langella's Broadway debut—he is among our most distinguished young actors, and Broadway should be ashamed of itself. It would be so easy to play a lizard as sort of Demon King or Godzilla, but Mr. Langella plays him precisely as one of those animals you have always longed to communicate with but never had the language. His partner, Maureen Anderman, is also superbly lizardlike, but as humanly feminine as Mr. Langella is humanly masculine.

In addition to the Pulitzer, Seascape won the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, and was nominated for a Tony. Langella won the Tony for Best Featured Actor, while garnering the Drama Desk Award for Supporting Actor. James Tilton was granted a Tony nomination for Best Lighting Designer.