Three Faces of A
Three Tall Women. By Edward Albee. Directed by Lawrence Sacharow. Starring Michael Learned, Christina Rouner, and Marian Seldes. At the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), through Aug. 31. Call 776-1999.

Edward Albee has had a hard time living up to his prodigal debut as a playwright. His other two plays awarded Pulitzers (A Delicate Balance and Seascape) have never been as popular as the beloved Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the recent Three Tall Women will probably live under the shadow of that great American play as well. The title is deceptive; Three Tall Women is about just one woman, a cantankerous heiress, identified only as "A" in the program. Albee admits the character was inspired by his adoptive mother, but don't start flinging hokey Freudian platitudes at it -- Three Tall Women isn't about those issues. The work is concerned with more ambitious themes: death, memory, and identity, through the dramatization of the life of a complex and frequently bitter woman. Albee accomplishes this, but the question remains: Are character and a fancy theme enough to make a great play?

The story leaks out slowly. Albee uses what David Mamet has called a "through line": There's no exposition, and you have to figure out what's happening from the dialogue. The curtain opens on a conservatively decorated bedroom, where an elderly lady (A) is attended by a middle-aged woman and a young, professional gal (B and C). One is A's caretaker, the other an emissary from a law firm managing her vast financial affairs. The old woman flings around pronouns without reference: "She" did this, "He" was an "architect of furniture." It takes several minutes to establish that it's Wednesday and the old woman is 91. While this free association is characteristic of senility, in Three Tall Women Albee isn't using it to be naturalistic; it's a device used to illustrate how nonlinear memory and identity are.

The selectivity of memory is the central issue in the second act. After collapsing from a heart attack at the conclusion of the first scene, the elderly woman lies motionless in her bed (through the deliberately clumsy guise of a puppet dressed in her clothes) when the play returns from intermission. The same women enter the stage, with two playing different roles, but this coup de theátre isn't signaled; you discover this only as the dialogue proceeds. The young litigator plays A at 26, the caretaker becomes A at 52, and Marian Seldes remains A at 91. The romantic younger woman becomes enraged at how coldly the older women use sex as a weapon, rather than for pleasure or fulfillment. The older incarnations of the woman are at first indifferent, and then hostile towards her youthful innocence. Some people think that the extremes of A's character, notably an intense hostility toward men, are a way for Albee to exact retribution on his mother. But he is careful to show how A is a woman hardened by a life as an accessory and nurse to men.

Walking out of the theater I couldn't help admiring the performances and the density of the script; but was it great theater? Three Tall Women has strong writing and acting, but probably not. Albee is so determined and cautious in his creation of this impossible woman that the final moments are static. The play doesn't teach, scare, or twist your gut. Even when A gets off a trenchant image -- in one monologue, she talks about lancing a puss-filled wound -- it sinks in the determined abstractions. It can't take the place of strategically placed meaning and metaphor. Three Tall Women is limited emotionally by its intellectual achievements.

-- Julie Chase

Shiver Me Timbers
Billy Budd. By Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman, based on the short novel by Herman Melville. Directed by Andrea Gordon. Starring Eric Flom, Simon Vance, and Lawrence Lee Jones. Presented by Venture Theater aboard the C.A. Thayer, Hyde Street Pier, Hyde Street and San Francisco Bay, through Sept. 7. Call 929-0202 ext. 58.

Either to save on set design costs or just because they can, the Venture Theater company keeps staging shows aboard the C.A. Thayer, a 1985 schooner tied to the Hyde Street Pier. Last year it was Eugene O'Neill's Tales of the Sea; now it's Billy Budd. The novelty reminds me of a ship in Boston Harbor that hosts daily re-enactments of the Boston Tea Party, with employees of a tour-guide company playing the part of revolutionaries (dressed as Indians) tossing tea crates over the gunwale and hollering nasty things about the British. It's cheesy; and actors in period costume threaten similar cheesiness before Billy Budd even starts, by lining up the audience like drafted sailors and marching them onto the Thayer. But once you've been drafted they leave you alone, and the show itself turns out to be pretty good. It's set roughly two decades after the Boston Tea Party and turns on the same theme -- English authority vs. the Rights of Man -- but the reason it works has more to do with the cast than the antique theater-ship.

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