When Edward Albee's "Seascape" premiered in 1975, the famously irascible playwright had to put up with people asking if his play, which features a middle-aged married couple and a pair of talking lizards, was farfetched. Not at all, Albee would say, arguing that this play was merely speeding up the evolutionary transition from mere glop to "tangerines and string quartets" as his main male character remarks in the play, implying that if such an amazing thing could and did happen, then a play about chatty lepidosauria is hardly absurd.
The great strength of director Nick Sandys' droll and articulate Remy Bumppo Theatre Company of Albee's eclectic drama is that it wants to take that text as gospel. Despite the full-blown scales-and-tales outfits sported by Sean Parris and Emjoy Gavino (the terrific costumes are by Rachel Laritz), playing the reptilian half of the play's quartet, both of these actors take the fears and travails of a scaly couple, encountering their human doppelgangers, at face value. You can see Parris' seemingly guileless brow scrunch up constantly beneath his lizard cap, worrying about relationships, and pondering the viability of true marital togetherness when your partner lays hundreds of eggs at a time. You have to admire how these actors move like lizards even as they worry like people; it's quite the tough assignment playing a critter in a play where the embrace of exotica only sends the play off course.
The lizards notwithstanding, the part of "Seascape" that takes place before they crawl into view remains one of Albee's most potent patches of writing, laying out with withering, devastating candor how marriages deteriorate over time, even though the later in life one gets, the more one needs, and the more time one tends to spend with, one's partner. It's one thing to escape into work; it's another to lie on the beach with the same deteriorating person, hour after hour, day after day, remembering a childhood when being on the rocks meant having fun.
Patrick Clear and Annabel Armour, who play the two humans in the show, are very well cast here. Armour reveals a woman still willing to cast her youth and charm upon life's treacherous waters and, intellectually, to adjust to life's changes. But in that early section, you can also see her sense of progressive loss (evolution does not always mean moving forwards). Similarly, Clear is empathetic and decent, but also deeply irritating, as the male and familiar tends to be. Especially when painted into a corner.
It's not hard to see loved ones in these Act One portraits; it's not hard to see oneself. Be very afraid of the future, Albee seems to be saying, albeit with some caustic wit. Things only get worse. And the primordial soup still boils.
This production, in its second act, ultimately does not go far enough; the trick here is that the two humans have to deal with the apparent appearance of talking lizards, without letting that amazement torpedo all that has been achieved, existentially speaking, in the first half of the play. Not all those traps are avoided, being as lizards pull focus, even though the play remains enjoyable and honest throughout. Still, Sandys, who clearly understands this play exceedingly well, could have pushed his humans yet further out to those sharp rocks and made his lizards yet more angst-laden and nascent in their pain, even as they emerge quizzically from their cracks when better judgment would tell them to stay out of the withering sun.
When: Through Oct. 14
Where: Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours