Nearly 30 years ago, when Edward Albee was explaining why he’d develop his new play Three Tall Women in Vienna, the great playwright excoriated New York’s commercial stage. Broadway, he said, was not our national theater, it was our national disgrace.
Harsh in ’91, absurd beyond measure tonight with the premiere of Joe Mantello’s superb staging of the play’s long-in-coming Broadway premiere. Starring the redoubtable Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning late-career masterpiece has been given the loving, impeccable production that Albee apparently thought was beyond Broadway’s reach (Scott Rudin leads a team of producers that includes Barry Diller, Eli Bush and James L. Nederlander, among others).
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When it debuted Off Broadway in ’94, Three Tall Women did seem to make some sort of case for Broadway’s inhospitality to serious drama (intelligent serious, not no laughs serious). Anyone who saw it could only wonder at how such a gorgeous work couldn’t thrive in any home of its choosing.
In two acts – no intermission – the autobiographical Three Tall Women both flays and eulogizes Albee’s adoptive mother, a socialite whose stony cruelty towards her gay son (and, more often than not, the rest of humanity) is examined – investigated, really – through the play’s intoxicating dialogue and an inspired, peel-away structure.
As the play begins, three women – nameless, listed in the credits as A, B & C – are gathered in the tastefully appointed, wealth-signalling bedroom where the elderly, addled A (Jackson) is living, meanly and painfully, her final days. B (Metcalf) is her 52-year-old caretaker, compassionate and clear-eyed, while C (Pill), is the 26-year-old attorney sent to tidy up some of the old woman’s financial affairs before it’s too late.
At 92 (she insists 91), A recites the long, rambling stories of her life, bitter and funny reflections interrupted only by frequent memory lapses, bathroom emergencies and sudden, vile insults aimed at the living and the dead.
In the small coup de théâtre that’s lost none of its power since ’94 (and won’t be spoiled here), the play’s second act finds the cast transformed, each actress now playing character A at three points of her life. Young A is all hope and shaky confidence, convinced, she insists, that she’ll never become the compromising, angry 52-year-old mother or the fatalistic, bed-ridden “thing” of 92 (or 91). She listens in growing panic as her older selves tell of what’s in store: the troubled marriage, the tortures of ill health, friends and family who disappoint and, most painful of all, a son she neither understands, accepts or loves.
Director Mantello (The Humans, Wicked) knows his way around this play, finding the action – yes, action – in a work that’s mostly, wonderfully talk. He orchestrates the conversation and guides his first-rate cast with an effortlessness matched point by point throughout this production. Miriam Buether’s bedroom set design, to pick one example, begins the play as the very illustration of confinement – grand and lovely confinement, but still – before transforming itself into something as expansive as memory.
And not a it of it would work if any of the three actresses stumbled somehow, and to say they don’t is an understatement. Pill (The Newsroom, and so reunited with producer Rudin) is all brittle arrogance as the young attorney before her youthful version of A shows us the terror – of failure, of age, of settling, of everything – that requires contempt as a shield.
Metcalf, in a role long owned by the late, great Marian Seldes, reminds us again – and, after last night’s dreadful Roseanne revival, we might need a little reminding – just what a sly and ferocious actor she is, playing the caretaker at something short of remove, warm but self-protective, as if professional distance might ward off the decay she sees before her.
And finally there’s Glenda Jackson, her monumental performance arriving so deep into an astounding 61 professional years that it mirrors Albee’s late-career accomplishment of this very play. She and Mantello are wise to what the playwright was doing with this looking back and summing up. If he couldn’t forgive, he could at least understand. By the time we all come to a stop, what’s the difference?
Three Tall Women opens tonight at the Schubert Organization’s Golden Theatre.
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