Marriage Play Spices Up a Worn-Out Relationship with Battle Sequences and Admissions of Infidelity

Like most real-life marriages, Theater Artists Studio's Marriage Play is lopsided. The company's production of Edward Albee's comic drama is expertly directed by Kathleen Butler, a chum and frequent collaborator of Albee's who originated the female role in this play (a coup for TAS because smaller troupes rarely attract celeb directors), and acted by a wildly mismatched pair of actors, each of them with rather impressive résumés.

Marriage Play is essentially a far less sophisticated update on Albee's George and Martha, the historically high-strung hotheads of his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like George and Martha, Jack and Gillian (whose nursery-rhyme names must be some kind of commentary on the futility of marriage, as in "Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water . . .") are disappointed in their post-middle-age lives. Also like George and Martha, they don't speak to one another; they bellow. They don't communicate; they play-act, staging and restaging the same scene (in which Jack attempts to abandon his wife) until they (and we) are happily exhausted.

Their story begins with a bang. Jack comes home from work and announces to Gillian, his wife of 30 years, that he is leaving her. She barely responds; she's busy reading the journal in which she has written comments on each of the 3,000 times the couple has made love. Because she doesn't react as he'd expected, Jack leaves and comes back in again, having first given Gillian notes on how she might respond. This happens again and again because Albee likes a play within a play and because he's commenting on the theatricality of marriage and on the fact that we're watching a play about an affected, melodramatic married couple.

Eventually, after duking it out with Albee's spare, Becket-esque dialogue, the couple begins fighting for real, rolling around on the floor, punching, biting, even choking each other. When this doesn't provide enough pain, Gillian resorts to admissions that she, like her husband, was unfaithful, which invites speeches about the futility of monogamy, the price of loyalty, the horror of mortality.

It's all a lot more entertaining than it sounds, at least as performed by Steven Mastroieni, whose frenetic performance is magnified by his loud, lovely voice. His Jack is in constant motion, subtly guarding his hurt with sharp words spoken in a mad rush that tells us he was born to play Albee.

Judy Lebeau, on the other hand, was not. Her performance is far too glib and actorly — make that community theater actorly — which is saying a lot when it's an Albee play, in which one can typically find ordinary people rolling their elbows like mad while quoting Lenore Coffee. Lebeau plays the entire show in one note; her Gillian is relentlessly cheerful, never sarcastic or bitter or displaying any more complex emotion that might suggest she actually cares her husband is leaving her. Rather than moments of agonized tension, she delivers the same smug smirk throughout. She appears to be in her first-ever stage performance (although she most certainly is not, having worked in theater for three decades), and Albee is no place to start your career.

Butler's directorial stamp is all over this, and her deep knowledge of Albee's work allows us to hear clearly his peculiar rhythms, to see how he — and the people in this marriage play — envisions life as an act in an often-dreary theatrical story. She elaborates on the couple's marital standoff by placing them often at opposite ends of Loretta J. Schwartz's nicely appointed stage, and demonstrates their conflict by really bringing them together only once, in fight choreographer David Barker's delicious battle sequence. Butler's staging is as impeccable as Mastroieni's acting. Together, they elevate this production and leave its audience with plenty to consider about love and marriage and life as a kind of theater.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela