Edward Albee was sitting in with DEVO at a gig at the Temple Ball Gallery. "Are we not men?" he archly purred, his adenoidal voice all buttery vowels and cool contempt; one wrist draped over the microphone, coasting for the early crowd.
All right, all right, it hasn't happened yet. But in a sense it has. The cold serendipity doesn't stop with DEVO founder Mark Mothersbaugh's de-evolutionary photos gracing the walls at Temple Ball the same week Edward Albee's Seascape goes up at N.C. State. It goes back to the beginning: 1974, the same year Albee was writing Seascape, while a crew of Akron art students were cranking up a pre/post-punk concept band. Who knew the two were kindred spirits?
At the center of Albee's briny metaphor is a pointed warning, one equally applicable to individuals and whole cultures: Evolution isn't irreversible. You have to regularly re-enlist. And since the traffic on that highway actually runs both ways, there's no telling who you might bump into--or be run down by--going in the opposite direction.
Incidentally--which way did you say you were headed?
Charlie is well into his own reverse evolution at the start of Seascape, as a recent retiree in full retreat from the world. Nancy, his wife, revolts against it in an early argument: "[Is this] what we've come all this way for? Had the children? Spent all this time together? ... To lie back down in the crib again? The same at the end as at the beginning? Sleep? Pacifier? Milk? Incomprehensible once more?" It's equally significant when Charlie reminisces about his one--and apparently only--utopic moment. It took place on an alien landscape, outside society, alone at the bottom of an ocean inlet. Decades later, with deep longing, he remembers lingering there, slowly turning into just another object on the floor of the sea.
These retrogressions are abruptly interrupted when two fantastic, upwardly mobile sea creatures suddenly appear toward the end of the first act. Given what's preceded them, at first we reasonably wonder if they're merely emissaries from the old neighborhood, come to negotiate a possible relocation in the near future--or the matter of back rent.
But Leslie and Sarah--as we finally learn their names--are simply a couple doing some evolving of their own. After awkward inter-species protocols (and male posturing between Charlie and Les), Sarah gets to the real reason they've come: "a sense of not belonging anymore" in the old place. Though the neighborhood was still interesting, they asked, "What did it have to do with us anymore?"
In this frame, Albee seemingly suggests that dissatisfaction and alienation are unavoidable first steps in either upward or downward evolution. They can provoke advancement into a changing world, or retreat into a golden, fading past.
Both principles are observed on stage in a University Theatre production timed to coincide with Albee's delivery of the annual Harrelson Lecture at N.C. State. Under John McIlwee's direction, Marilee Spell too often billboards Nancy's ever-changing moods. By contrast, Robin Dorff's Charlie at first sulks sullenly within the cage of his own fears and inhibitions before he's forced to take an interest in something outside them.
Given Albee's script, that interest is vinegary, to be sure. "I don't know what I want for you," Charlie finally rails at his aquatic guests. "I don't know what I feel toward you; it's either love or loathing. Take your pick; they're both emotions."
The line has all the resonance of a playwright speaking directly to the world. It also echoes a significant earlier pronouncement in The Zoo Story, that kindness and cruelty combined together form "the teaching emotion."
The human couple ultimately offers to teach the new arrivals (ably portrayed by Frank Sarnie and Jessie Stewart, and vividly costumed by Lisa Tireman). But given what we know of them by then, this arrangement seems almost existentially quixotic.
At the end, those with limited insight are leading those with even less. It's the current joke on Darwin's favorite theory: We're still in charge. At least for now.
****The Man Who, Manbites Dog Theater--No narrator holds our hand in this daring adaptation of Oliver Sacks' famous book of brain dysfunctions. Since clinicians interact with patients, without preamble or comment, and when they end, we move on, the only conclusions come from the audience; a gutsy move when most "issue plays" show us social failings--and then dictate what we should think.
Mark Jeffrey Miller gets a real workout as characters including a man unmoored from language. Dana Marks returns in triumph; her woman with Tourette's syndrome is an achievement. Newcomer Gigi DeLizza impresses as well.
Sacks' patients struggle for dignity and normalcy despite their difficulties while doctors routinely threaten that dignity with striking disregard. After decades institutionalized, what therapeutic benefit is gained when an orderly daily shatters a woman's belief that she's still 22--by confronting her with her aged reflection in a mirror? In this latter-day freak show, the real freaks are the ones with the humane disorders. They're usually in white lab coats. (Held over. Final shows Friday-Saturday, March 25-26.)
***A Moon for the Misbegotten , Triad Stage--As Phil Hogan, that old Irish sinner, actor Dane Knell seems more to have sprung up on Eugene O'Neill's failing Connecticut farm than to have set foot on it. Actually, that's the problem here: When someone's this good on stage, everyone else has to match his level of believability. Lise Bruneau is clearly game as his rough-edged daughter Josie, and Matthew Mabe is not that far behind as Jim Tyrone. But their fundamental lack of chemistry, even as unsuccessful lovers, limits this production's achievement. When their famous moonlit date goes into extra innings, hidden desires (as opposed to duties) stay far too hidden, in a show that simply drags beyond a point. When their attraction never rises above the hypothetical, Phil remains more memorable, more believable--which isn't exactly what O'Neill had in mind. (Through March 27.)
** The Nerd , Temple Theatre--Truth in advertising bids me warn you: The repellant title character in this unfortunate comedy has several far more appropriate aliases, including The Grating Psychopath, The Budding Pedophile and The Flaming Royal Ass. Playwright Larry Shue's dubious contribution to that comedic sub-genre, "nice guy inexplicably permits visiting jerk to completely ruin life," traps characters--and audience--in a room with a total drip for two long hours. Well before a too-late plot twist straightens matters out, we wish we'd seen a cast this talented put to better use. (Through March 27.)
Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.