by Carol Rocamora


“There’s no such thing as a one-act play!” I heard Edward Albee exclaim once. “A play is as long as it needs to be.”


You’ll understand what he meant, watching the three compelling short works now playing at the Pershing Square Center, under the collective title of Signature Plays. Each of these three writers has taken just as much stage time as needed to say what he/she wanted to say.


Albee is the master of economy and precision. The Sandbox (1961) accomplishes in fifteen minutes what it takes other plays hours to do. A devastating study of family and death, it sums up a lifelong relationship between a husband and wife, and a mother and daughter. Mommy and Daddy (as they’re called) are taking Grandma on an outing to the beach – and ultimately, to her grave. They deposit her in a sandbox, and lie there on their chaises, sunning, while Grandma plays in the sand (occasionally throwing handfuls at her disapproving daughter). Within minutes, we get the picture: dead marriage, deadly mother/daughter dynamic. Nearby stands a Young Man (Ryan-James Hatanaka) with a Michelangelesque physique. He smiles at them while he flexes his pecs. “Wait,” says Mommy, cryptically. Night fall, and when morning comes, Grandma has died. Is the Young Man an angel of death, we wonder, in this absurdist étude of a dysfunctional family?


Frank Wood and Alison Fraser are chillingly hilarious as the deadpan couple, while Phyllis Somerville steals the show as the feisty Grandma.   “I based her on my own grandmother,” Albee has said. “She was my favorite member of my adoptive family. Though I must say I like my character better,” he added. Like a Greek chorus, Grandma also appears in Albee’s The American Dream (1960) about another dysfunctional family. “Rhythm and content,” she warns us. “You’ll learn.”


Drowning, María Irene Fornés’s 1986 abstract study on loneliness and longing, takes the theatre of the absurd to an even greater extreme. Based on a Chekhov short story, this Cuban-American avant garde writer offers a surreal scene, featuring Pea and Roe, two huge creatures (Mikéah Ernest Jennings and Sahr Ngaujah, dressed in fat suits) wearing grotesque rubber head masks, seated at a table somewhere in conversation. They speak slowly and laboriously of feelings and not fitting in, while Steven (Frank Wood again), a third creature, comes and goes. This Beckettian-like study questions whether language can adequately express how we feel. Can it connect us? “Do you know what it is to need someone?” One asks the other.” Do you know what despair is?” The question goes unanswered; meanwhile, their raw emotions are as painful to hear as their grotesque physiques are to behold.


Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) is longest and the most challenging of the three pieces. Considered the poet of the off-Broadway movement, Ms. Kennedy takes us on an extravagantly surreal, dream-like journey through the looking glass and into the mind of so-called Negro Sarah (Crystal Dickinson), a young woman who is struggling with issues of racial identity. The stage, with its huge distorting funhouse mirror, becomes populated with a wild range of historical characters representing Sarah’s mixed ancestry and conflicting selves – including Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus Christ and Patrice Lumumba. Written during the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, the play expresses what it must have felt like to be a African-American woman in that era.


Lila Neugebauer directs an agile 11-member ensemble playing multiple roles. Her talented team (Mimi Lien, set; Kaye Voyce, costumes; Mark Barton, lights) offer three vivid, imaginative designs to represent the strikingly different scenes.


Speaking of this final production of Signature Theatre’s 25th season, founder Jim Houghton has dipped into his theatre’s rich past, assembling what he calls “three timeless pieces of writing,” with interconnecting themes.


“He is drowning, he hurts too much”, says a character in the final moments of Drowning. How admirable it is that these three writers – Albee, Fornes, and Kennedy – have turned their own personal hurt into high art.


Signature Plays: Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, María Irene Fornés’ Drowning, Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, directed by Lila Neugebauer; at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, until June 19  –  Photos: Monique Carboni