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Signature Plays: Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, María Irene Fornés’ Drowning, Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro: Theater review by David Cote
Although wildly diverse, the three pieces that make up Signature Plays are all grappling with death. Whether absurdist (Edward Albee’s The Sandbox), grotesque (María Irene Fornés’s Drowning) or nightmarishly surreal (Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro), each culminates in an extinction of spirit or body (or both). That might sound like a numbing two hours, but it’s not when the language is crafted by such giants of American experimental theater. Albee, Fornés and Kennedy have been breaking rules since the late ’50s and early ’60s, and today’s most daring playwrights (Will Eno, Anne Washburn, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, to name three) have absorbed their influences—but what a joy to hear this raw music straight from the source.
Director Lila Neugebauer delivers each work with a custom-tailored design and approach to performance, treating them not as museum relics (even if that is a temptation with the horror-diorama Funnyhouse). The Sandbox (1959) unfolds in a glaringly bright-yellow box inhabited by a well-muscled Young Man (Ryan-James Hatanaka) doing calisthenics by slowly lifting his arms up and down. The motion recalls the beating of wings, quite intentionally, since the youth eventually reveals his role as the angel of you-know-what. Two comical dullards called Mommy (Alison Fraser) and Daddy (Frank Wood) toddle on with the feisty Grandma (Phyllis Somerville), who will eventually be enfolded in the angel’s arms. Both satiric and tender, Albee’s metatheatrical sketch is an amuse-bouche, its wryly funny laughs drying in your throat.
After a nine-minute “pause,” we get to Fornés’s brief and utterly bizarre Drowning (1986). Two obese, potato-headed creatures sit at a European café making small talk about newspapers and snowmen. One of them, the dreamy and innocent Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings, heartbreaking under layers of latex) becomes infatuated with a woman in a photograph. Months later, it doesn’t end well.
The creepy dream state of Drowning is nothing compared to the metaphysical onslaught of Funnyhouse of Negro (1964), the program’s longest and most satisfying offering. Designer Mimi Lien’s shadowy, black puzzle-box set is a spine-tingling physical manifestation of the heroine’s haunted, maze-like psyche. Kennedy’s harrowing inventory of internalized racism centers on Negro-Sarah (Crystal Dickinson) and her whiteface avatars: Queen Victoria Regina (April Matthis), the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy) and Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba (Sahr Ngaujah), also a stand-in for Sarah’s despised Afrocentric father. I bet you won’t see anything so fearlessly weird and original all year. I don’t know if Beyoncé is familiar with Kennedy’s work, but Funnyhouse plays like a hard-core retort to the self-empowerment poetics of Lemonade. That Funnyhouse came half a century earlier hardly even matters.—David Cote
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Edward Albee, María Irene Fornes and Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. With ensemble casts. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote