The Lady from Dubuque

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Photograph: Joan Marcus
The Lady from Dubuque at the Pershing Square Signature Center

“Get the Guests” is the impromptu game of social sadism played by George and Martha in Edward Albee’s best-known work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and in this metaphysical fable written 17 years later, he flips the rules. One morning, suburban couple Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) find that their living room is occupied by the mysterious Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and her associate, Oscar (Peter Francis James). Jo is in the agonizing terminal stage of an undisclosed disease. Sam’s being eaten up by anticipatory grief. In this instance, the guests get them.

The Lady from Dubuque dates from Albee’s infamous down period, when critics who had hailed his 1960s breakthroughs—from The Zoo Story to A Delicate Balance—found the eloquent angry young man had grown into a convention-tweaking philosophe handling recherché topics (evolution, Maoist diktats). In some ways, Dubuque was a return to Albee’s early-phase naturalism; it takes place in a concrete locale with nothing overtly supernatural happening. But at its core, it remains an arch bafflement, an allegory about dying wrapped in an existential noodlefest: The questions “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” arise repeatedly. Death, the great eraser of identity, comes in the form of a grand dame who pretends to be someone’s mother. (You’ve heard that the thematic key to Albee’s work is being adopted and disliking his surrogate parents? The author himself never lets you forget it.)

The Signature has not put a wrong foot forward since opening its fantastic complex, and this optimal revival of second-tier Albee is utterly vital. Even if the characters and queries are less involving than elsewhere in his corpus, the writing is often shockingly vivid and honest, and the ensemble acting pretty much perfect. Marvelous Thomas Jay Ryan, Catherine Curtin, Tricia Paoluccio and C.J. Wilson offer key support and comic relief as meddlesome neighbors. David Esbjornson’s handsome staging unfolds with fluid grace. Dubuque played on Broadway for just 12 performances in 1980; thanks to the Signature, this strange, wounded and often lovely creature gets to live a little longer.—David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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