Edward Albee's brilliant The Play About the Baby is really a play about age, life and experience. It's mesmerizing to watch, raising all kinds of associations — comfortable and familiar, uncomfortable but still familiar — along with echoes of things you know and other things your thoughts have only touched on before now. A young couple called Boy and Girl are happily and sexily — in a rather ridiculous way — in love. The theme of motherhood and nurturance is never far from the fore in Albee's work, and Girl delivers a baby with great speed and a bunch of howling in the play's opening moments. The young husband, who identifies himself as perennially hard, is determined to share her breasts and milk with their newborn. Enter Man and Woman. Are they emissaries from the youngsters' future? Their older selves? Pursuing Furies in human guise? There's no point in trying to settle on an interpretation, because all of these — and several more — fit. The fluidity of memory and understanding represents another strong and connecting theme; at one point Man actually remembers forgetting his own mother.
Girl and Boy are fairly straightforward figures; the older couple are more complex, or at least more self-contradictory and prone to shape-shifting. Sometimes they're funny or out-and-out clownish, sometimes confused-seeming, sometimes snarling and malevolent. Both are pedantic about language and meaning. Man and Woman have arrived to deal out pain to the younger generation for no real reason — except that the progress of a life means the steady progress of loss, as all old people know and young ones have yet to find out. There is nothing literal about Albee's script: The action is unrealistic and absurd; the fourth wall is often broken and the conventions of theater mocked, as when, after Woman has delivered a particularly florid speech, Man asks the audience, "Do you believe a word of this?"
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The dialogue suggests that loss and pain are salutary because in forcing us to see reality, they humanize us. This is a ubiquitous piece of wisdom. "How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in," asked Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol. And then there's Leonard Cohen, croak-crooning his memorable Anthem: "Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in."
But there's no light in this play, not a whisper of hope or transcendence. The loss inflicted on Boy and Girl goes beyond weeping or redemption. Man and Woman will take from them not only everything meaningful, but their very memory of meaning. In the face of this ancient malice, how can youthful innocence hope to protect itself?
The Play About the Baby
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through August 26, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
All of which might suggest that The Play About the Baby is depressing, but it is in fact very funny, going from the moments of elegant wit to scenes of laugh-out-loud buffoonish comedy. Theater of the absurd came about because the genre allows writers to make imaginative leaps and go beyond sequence and logic. There's no obvious connection between sibling rivalry and toast, but those endlessly repeating rows of shiny new toasters in Sam Shepard's True West say something about his feuding brothers, the tension between the conformity of one and the unconventionality of the other, that could never be articulated in words.
In his first outing as director with the company that his father, Ed Baierlein, and mother, Sally Diamond, have run for over thirty years, Tad Baierlein has assembled a cast that's close to perfect. Deborah Persoff, a gloriously theatrical actress, couldn't be better as Woman. Whether acting wryly sophisticated or over-the-top Whatever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane crazy, whether mimicking Hollywood tropes or subverting them — she does both when she describes the painter who once hanged himself for love of her — she is pitch-perfect. Kelsey Kaisershot is pleasantly self-effacing as Girl, and if you never quite get a read on the character or fathom just how upset she is when she can't find the baby, that's primarily because of the way she's written. Cole Cribari is a restrained and vulnerable Boy, particularly touching when he begs Man, "I can take pain and loss later. Give us some time." To which Man replies, "Time's up." Ed Baierlein is one of the finest actors in Denver, and his Man is an interesting study, mildly knowing or satanic, fascinating in his silences, and sometimes evincing a weariness so deep that it feels almost like wisdom.