REVIEW: Albee’s “Three Tall Women” Astonishes
Edward Albee’s adopted mother was a tall woman. Over six feet, in fact. Patrician, casually bigoted, and difficult, they were estranged for 17 years before he became one of the most successful and celebrated playwrights of the 20th century. Upon her death, her birth certificate revealed she was just one year older than she claimed to be, a petty vanity befitting a mysterious woman. Albee, who ran away at age 20, was largely disinherited from his family’s considerable wealth. He died in 2016.
While fiction, his 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Three Tall Women”, a late-career boon of a masterpiece that opened tonight in its Broadway premiere at the John Golden Theatre, is autobiographical—an “exorcism” by Albee’s own description. An exorcism that has the benefit of being the product of an older author, albeit one of the greatest, who spoke with a hard-earned and unique perspective, and never stopped experimenting with form or addressing hard subject matter, keeping the audience on its toes.
Under the intelligent hand of director Joe Mantello (“The Humans”), this new production is ferociously compelling and features a trio of astonishing performances. In the first scene, we meet A (Glenda Jackson, “King Lear”), a frail and forgetful wealthy firebrand in her 90s, B (Laurie Metcalf, “A Doll’s House: Part 2”), her exasperated and semi-abrasive 50-something caretaker, and C (Alison Pill, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”), a prim young lawyer in her 20s who has come to organize A’s affairs. In the second, metaphysical scene, A, B, and C are actually the same woman, at different ages in her life.
While that may have been an “ah hah” revelation when the play opened at the Vineyard Theatre in 1991, Mr. Mantello smartly combines the two acts of the play into one to keep the action moving—a nod to our knowledge at what is hinted at throughout the first scene, with slips of “we” and “our” subtly gracing the text. Knowing the fact of A, B, and C’s coming single existence does not diminish but rather enriches that first scene, for words and exchanges with double meaning are able to be appreciated in the moment.
Many of Albee’s plays are puzzles, operating on multiple levels, almost never wholly literal; this one is no less dense, but just as satisfying. The second scene takes place through the looking glass, with the back wall of Miriam Beuther’s exquisite set lifting up to reveal a mirror reverse copy of A’s elegantly appointed bedroom, itself bounded by a mirror wall reflecting both rooms, and the audience. The play is as much about A-B-C as it is us. This clever design makes for constant shape-shifting effect, aided by lighting designer Paul Gallo’s smooth fades and foci, both awash in brilliant white.
Ms. Jackson, who returns to the stage following a 25 year absence, part of which she spent serving as a Member of the British Parliament, is gloriously cantankerous and regal, commanding the stage with a “take no prisoners” confidence that is arresting. Every word, every gesture is captivating, and the specificity of her vaguely continental accent—everything is said as “eh-vuh-ree-thing”—coolly evokes A’s privileged prime years spent showing horses and donning jewels. In the first scene, she is crippled by crumbling bones and bladder infection, in the grip of senility; in the second scene, the end of her life, all disability is gone, revealing her sharpness, both mean and wise. Ms. Jackson simply transforms into her character. It’s not acting. It’s being. And it is a wonder to behold.
Ms. Metcalf, returning to the Golden Theatre following last season’s ravishing, Tony-winning performance in “A Doll’s House: Part 2”, wears a Kabuki mask resting face of exasperation that pierces the dark right to the center of the middle aged woman’s dilemma, invisibility, and confidence. It’s hard to think of another actor who is as natural on stage; not a single moment rings false or constructed, though, of course, it is the product of an intensely methodical process. Ms. Metcalf is an actor who does her homework without letting it show, and it is a joy to watch.
Ms. Pill has the hardest part to play, as most of her dialogue consists of questions used to prompt her older selves into explaining what is to come or the folly of her current thinking. Indeed, so much of the play consists of A and B taunting and teasing C, who is less fully sketched than her older versions. That set up can become rhythmically rote, but Albee is smart enough—and Mr. Mantello and his expert company deft enough—to keep the play engaging and propulsive, despite this baked in flaw, an annoying fact of incipient self-knowledge juxtaposed with the serenity and conviction of age.
What emerges through this fascinating self-conversation is the portrait of a woman incapable of processing change, powerless in the face of life’s pain and pleasure, beaten down by disappointment and surprise. Each woman is different, and yet they are the same, just as we are in a constant state of change. The play also offers an all too rare glimpse at the indignity of aging—from bedpans to memory loss—and culminates in a poignant conversation about happiness, each woman offering her perspective, her case, for when in life one is most happy. The ending (no spoilers) wows, as only good theatre can.
Albee is at his best when pricking our complacency and poking a hole in the American habit of putting on a happy face. “Three Tall Women” does both marvelously. This limited engagement of a towering work by a towering playwright and featuring three towering performances is not to be missed.
Bottom Line: Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece “Three Tall Women” is ferociously compelling under the smart hand of director Joe Mantello, and features a trio of astonishing performances by Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Alison Pill. This limited engagement of a towering work by a towering playwright and featuring three towering performances is not to be missed.
“Three Tall Women”
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: One hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 29, 2018
Final Performance: June 24, 2018