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Glenda Jackson Stands Tallest Among Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women”

I never met, and have read almost nothing directly about, Edward Albee’s adoptive mother. But like every theater critic who has watched the bulk of Albee’s work come to life onstage, I feel as though I have met the lady many, many times. I would not, however, presume to call her a friend. To judge by the mark she left on her adopted son’s collected plays, Frances Cotter Albee must have been, as they say, quite a piece of work. The formality-obsessed, bossy Mommy of The American Dream and The Sandbox; the haughty, fear-haunted Claire of A Delicate Balance; the tight-lipped, grudge-clutching Wife of All Over; the indomitable Gillian of Marriage Play: Even this partial list makes it hard to imagine what Albee’s career would have been without the unhappiness his mother seemed so ready to generate.

Never assume, though, that Albee would not have willingly traded all the prizes and box-office profits for a set of parents, and particularly a mother, with whom he could have — literally — felt more at home. The emotional baggage that playwrights’ parents visit on their gifted, perceptive offspring is a lifelong burden; each play is merely a way of setting it down, so the gasping baggage-carrier can rest for a moment and take stock of his or her situation. Then the burden is heaved onto the shoulders again, pressing the burdened soul onward to the next achievement. Forgiveness comes hard, and can take a lifetime to achieve.

The understanding that brings forgiveness is the substance of Three Tall Women, which ranks with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as one of the two great turning points in Albee’s career. Virginia Woolf’s arrival on Broadway in 1962 made Albee both a major commercial player and a literary figure of world-class stature. By 1991, when Three Tall Women premiered in Vienna’s English Theatre, those two roles were seriously at odds. World-class literary figures don’t tailor their results to the demands of the commercial market, and Albee had produced a succession of works virtually guaranteed to give that market palpitations. The puzzling but relatively graspable A Delicate Balance (1966) was the notable exception, blossoming like an oasis among what otherwise seemed (to the commercial marketers) a desert of paradoxical, eccentric, or downright incomprehensible productions. The infuriating adaptations — Malcolm (1966) even infuriated the author of the source novel, while Lolita (1981) infuriated everybody — and the literary experiments, like Quotations From Chairman Mao-Tse-Tung (1968), might be written off as make-work to fill the time between major plays. But there was no way for money-minded Broadway to dodge the resolutely uncommercial reality of Tiny Alice (1964), All Over (1971), Seascape (1975), The Lady From Dubuque (1980), and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983). Whatever prestige Albee might still command in the wider world, or through revivals of his two “hits,” Broadway had consigned him to the outer darkness.

Then came Three Tall Women, its arrival coinciding with the season-long Signature Theatre salute that gave New York its first view of Marriage Play, Counting the Ways, Listening, and the one-act gem Finding the Sun. Albee in bulk Off-Broadway, with the superlative Three Tall Women crowning the season, might not be a Broadway-style commercial power, but he was suddenly a welcome guest, a figure clearly to be reckoned with. From then until his death in 2016, Albee stood in the role he should always have held: the playwright as public intellectual, with his earlier works, including some of the more challenging, being revived and re-tested, while he turned out new creations, inevitably varied in quality. He even ventured back onto Broadway with his deliciously provocative The Goat (2002).

Left to right: Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson, and Laurie Metcalf populate one of Edward Albee’s elegantly comfortable rooms.

And now Three Tall Women has joined the ranks of the Albee plays that have established a foothold on Broadway, in a clear-cut and largely excellent production (apart from some needless flim-flammery with an upstage mirror) by Joe Mantello. One assumes that Albee, who after his late-life return to success became a much warmer and more amiable man (at least to judge by my own occasional encounters with him), must be looking on and smilin’; one wonders if Frances Cotter Albee is also doing so. For the play is a triumph of empathy, in which a woman unyielding and unforgiving is made forgivable, and even somewhat admirable, through an effort of comprehension that could come only through a playwright’s long-practiced skills.

The woman, in the play, is nameless. Her son, who appears for a segment of its second scene, is silent. (On Broadway, he is not even listed in the program.) By the time he arrives, she has had a stroke and is either dead or comatose. The speaking roles in that scene are representations of her at three ages — 26, 52, and 92. In the first scene, A (Glenda Jackson), the 92-year-old, is the woman, facing the end of her life. B (Laurie Metcalf) is her 52-year-old hired companion. C (Alison Pill) is a smart 26-year-old envoy from her lawyer’s office, there to compel A to attend to some long-neglected legal business. (A has developed the rather Trumpian characteristic of preferring to challenge bills rather than pay them.)

A’s memory is fallible, her motor functions generally require B’s assistance, and she frequently loses the thread of what she was saying. None of which stops her from dominating the conversation, or from insisting on her right to dominate it. In the first scene, we see B alternately abetting and gently but firmly correcting her, while C, more coldly distant, registers her frustration — as strongly as she can without alienating a woman who’s clearly one of her firm’s major clients. In scene two, when all three have become avatars of the comatose figure in the onstage bed, the memories in which A has previously indulged are now distributed evenly among the woman’s three ages, each from her own perspective. C, bright, playful, and a shade arrogant about her youthful charm, does not relish the thought of becoming A. B, in a transitional stage, is laden with regrets for that playful past and new assurances stemming from the role she has learned to play as the wife of a wealthy and powerful man. A rebukes them both with the wisdom — and regret — that she has acquired over her late decades. Both A and B have much to say about the Boy (and to him, although he doesn’t hear them), who comes in to sit silently at the woman’s bedside, and then goes out as quietly as he came, leaving their turmoil behind him.

Less a piece of action than interaction, Albee’s text is really a dramatized poem, full of humor, sharp in its psychological details, and suffused with the complexity of human motives. We learn so much about the woman who has aged into A — her hopes, her background, her fears, her limitations, her needs — that when the talk traverses her unhappiness with her husband or her fury at the way her son has turned out, we understand each of these points of strong feeling as the sum of a vast calculation, adding up a lifetime of accumulated moments. Rich in its easy flow of language, Three Tall Women is also rich in its directness. While the sentences often display the ornate syntax of an educated class of bygone days — a syntax Albee grew up with and cherishes in his writing — they virtually never bog down, as other Albee plays sometimes do, in mere verbal quibbles. The words here come seamlessly, as in a poem the author sorely needed to write. The deep thought packed into them has clearly been building for decades.

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The quality that makes Glenda Jackson’s performance a transcendent one is something of a surprise. Jackson, for me, is one of the acting icons of the post-genteel, “Angry” generation in British theater — angular, politically aware, unafraid of the fierce and harsh sectors of the emotional spectrum. In my mind, she always appears first as I saw her in 1967, as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade: the eerie, rigid movements; the darting, frantic eyes; the strange, seemingly displaced voice. Yet here, amid the elegantly comfortable furnishings of an Albee room, draped in the lavishly ornate cascades of Albee’s language, she has absorbed into her persona a grande-dame actress of the generation her generation was rebelling against, in one of the innumerable cozy plays the West End theaters turned out in the Forties and Fifties for the particular delectation of matinee ladies — only, of course, with the difference that half a century makes. For everything is different: Three Tall Women may evoke such midcentury plays but is definitely not one of them, and the evident delight that Jackson takes in slipping into the character of a West End star amusing herself and her following with such a play is like an iridescent scarf of sparkling theatricality draped over a performance as solidly built and reality-based as the best sort of Greek tragic acting. Picture a playful Clytemnestra, and you will get some idea of Jackson’s work.

Jackson gets to blaze out so starrily, in part, because Metcalf, as B, has chosen a deliberately un-grand approach to the character’s impending grandeur: This is a woman who has not yet become the domineering dowager A has turned into. She is still experimenting with the role, testing her authority and learning fast what she can and can’t get away with. Where Marian Seldes’s unforgettable B vented her full rage on the disappointing son, Metcalf’s “Get out of my house!,” equally memorable in its way, is a half-choked sob of recrimination at her own failure. At every point, Metcalf builds with similar quietude, and every point strikes home. Understandably, Pill, constrained by the smallest of the three roles, sometimes pushes her character forward, especially in the second scene, a little too self-consciously. But it’s hard to imagine any actress sharing the stage with these two performances not feeling the itch to compete; the alternative would be to retreat in terror, and no actress worth her salt would do that, given a role with such opportunities in a play of Three Tall Women’s stature. It depicts a mode of life shared by very few, but its sense of living has the fullness that gives a play an unmistakable claim to be called a masterpiece.

Three Tall Women
John Golden Theater
252 West 45th Street
212-239-6200
threetallwomenbroadway.com
Through June 24

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Laurie Metcalf’s Four-Decade Overnight Success

On a cloudy Thursday in March, I climbed two narrow flights of stairs to reach Laurie Metcalf in her dressing room in the Golden Theater, on 45th Street, where she’s appearing in the Edward Albee play Three Tall Women alongside Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill. There’s something simultaneously awe-inspiring and humbling about the backstage bowels of a nearly 100-year-old Broadway theater. On the one hand, you’re standing on the same hallowed ground where Glengarry Glen Ross made its Broadway premiere, where Falsettos and Avenue Q opened, where Mike Nichols and Elaine May helped shape a new era of comedy. On the other, to get back there, you have to enter through a dank alley squeezed between two buildings and filled with dumpsters.

It’s a humble ingress, but that suits a workhorse like Metcalf. “It’s always daunting to tackle a classic, because in the back of your mind you see ‘classic’ and you think you should be precious with it,” she says. “That you can’t be a little bit goofy, or you can’t show a sense of humor about your character unless it’s dictated by this classic script. But it’s fun to throw that out the window and look for it.” She sits with her legs crossed in the small but cozy room outfitted with a grey couch and a vanity mirror above a narrow dressing table. A side table holds a half-finished jigsaw puzzle made from a photograph of her grown son plowing a snowy field in Idaho, where Metcalf, who grew up in southern Illinois, owns property. The heat pipes start coughing just as I’m about to turn on my voice recorder, and when I jokingly complain, she gets up to turn it off with a look of such genuine concern I immediately regret opening my mouth.  

True to its title, Three Tall Women — for which Albee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 — features three women credited only as “A,” a wealthy but ailing woman in her 90s, played by Jackson; “B,” A’s caregiver, in her 50s, played by Metcalf; and “C,” a woman in her mid-20s (Pill) who works for A’s law firm. In the first act, set in A’s ornate bedroom, the two younger women listen and interject, with varying degrees of patience, as A reflects on her life in a series of monologues; in its second half, the play shifts to a more metaphysical space, and all three women debate the merits and drawbacks of the different stages of their lives. It’s both darkly funny and undeniably melancholy.

Three Tall Women’s director, Joe Mantello, has described Metcalf (favorably) as a “monster,” an actor who “supplies you with such a variety and wealth of choices, and she doesn’t need a lot of guidance.” But, sitting within the pale-yellow walls of her dressing room, in jeans, a grey hoodie with the play’s logo screen-printed on the front, grey slippers, and zero makeup, Metcalf doesn’t look so scary. She looks both attentive and deeply absorbed by the task at hand — this interview, sure, but mostly the evening performance that begins in just under two hours. She reaches for her dog-eared copy of the script, stuffed with loose-leaf pieces of notepaper. “It’s been slippery,” she says of the run of preview performances, which ends when the play officially opens on Thursday. “Some of the emotions go from high to low really quickly. They’re very jerky. We went down a lot of blind alleys, trying to make it more naturalistic than it wants to be.”

Making something inherently artificial look natural is Metcalf’s superpower. It wasn’t too long ago when it seemed Metcalf had already reached a summit in her career, achieving in just 18 months the kind of success most actors would be lucky to manage over the course of a career. She was nominated for three Emmy awards in 2016, for turns on Horace and Pete, Getting On, and The Big Bang Theory; nine months later, she won her first Tony award, for the role of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s adaptation of the famed Ibsen play. But now, the 62-year-old is wrapping up another whirlwind month. Not only is she starring alongside one of her idols, Jackson, in a Broadway production of an Edward Albee play (her first); she’s also reprising her role of Aunt Jackie in the buzzy new reboot of Roseanne, which returned to ABC this week 21 years after the groundbreaking sitcom went off the air.

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And then there was the weekend earlier this month when she had to jet to L.A. to attend the Oscars, for which she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress — her first Academy Award nomination — in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, for her role as the title character’s devoted but brittle mother.

“Yeah, that was a tough one,” Metcalf says of the weekend of the Oscars, chewing on the drawstrings of her sweatshirt. “That’s like a dream. We did two shows, we did a two o’clock and an eight o’clock on a Saturday. The Oscars are on Sunday, so Sunday morning I went very, very early to the airport and my flight was delayed for two and a half hours. And everybody in L.A. is waiting for me to show up at this hotel room so I can get into hair and makeup and cost—” she stops herself. “I said ‘costume.’ It is a costume! So I landed, went straight there, went to the ceremony, didn’t go to any parties, came straight back to the hotel room, and got up the next day and came back.”

According to Metcalf’s co-star Alison Pill, the first day of rehearsals for Three Tall Women also happened to be the morning of the Oscar nominations. “I’m sure other actors would have brought some of that energy into the room,” Pill says. “But Laurie is an actor for whom the most important thing is building a character that serves the show and building an environment that serves the ensemble. So within minutes the Oscars were pushed to the side. I’m not sure many other actors would be capable of that.”

Metcalf lost to Allison Janney, who won for her performance as another tough mother in the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. But if Metcalf was disappointed, she didn’t show it. Frankly, she doesn’t have time for that. She’s more comfortable plugging away in a dark, cramped theater than sunning herself in the spotlight, and she approaches her career with the steely-eyed focus of a sharp shooter. Doing press for Lady Bird while rehearsing Three Tall Women, she says, was “distracting.” “But, you know, that came and went,” she adds. “I’ll never have another March like this in my life, I know that.”

Will Frears, who directed her in the 2015–16 Broadway adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery — she snagged another Tony nomination for that one — recalls directing a play in 2004 for the legendary Chicago theater company Steppenwolf, which Metcalf and a group of fellow actor-friends founded in the 1970s. He didn’t meet her then, but, he says, “People spoke of her in these hushed tones.” Years later, when Frears was preparing to cast Misery, he drove out to meet Metcalf in the Hamptons, where she was doing a play. He was stuck in traffic and tried frantically to call her, to no avail. Finally, he arrived at the diner where they had planned to meet, and she told him not to worry — and that she’d left her cellphone at home. “You’re already the most impossibly cool person I know,” he recalls thinking.

Once they were rehearsing Misery, Frears was struck by Metcalf’s levelheadedness. “There’s no airs,” he says. “I think she wore the same flannel shirt every day in rehearsal.” She writes down notes in a steno pad after run-throughs, and talks about moments in the play she hasn’t yet “problem-solved.” Metcalf doesn’t dismiss the recognition her work has received in the past couple years, but she approaches it gingerly, as if not to disturb the foundation of her labor that it rests upon. “It’s satisfying when you get compliments from peers,” she acknowledges. “It all depends on if you feel like whatever you’re being acknowledged for, that you actually did do a good job on it — that you gave 150 percent, you poured everything that you could into it.” She finds freedom in theater, where no one is shoving a camera in your face; she feels self-conscious when she’s being filmed, and for nine years on the original run of Roseanne, from 1988 to 1997, she’d “shut down a little bit” on tape day.

Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird”

All three actors in Three Tall Women give formidable performances, but when I saw the play, I was struck by how instinctive Metcalf’s performance looked — every word she spoke sounded like her own. When I mention this, her eyes widen and her face lights up. “Oh, that’s a huge compliment!” she says. “That’s the goal of interpreting, you know, is to make it look spontaneous and in the moment.” She pauses, pleased. “You didn’t see the typewritten words above my head!”

It takes a lot of sweat to make acting look so effortless — particularly comedic acting, which rarely earns performers the same kind of accolades as a dramatic role. But Metcalf is extraordinarily skilled at digging out the humor hidden in the most seemingly banal words. “She carves out every single moment to find the funniest delivery, the science behind the comedy or pathos of it,” Pill says. “These are small moments, but she will obsess and try things until it’s perfected.” Michael Fishman, who played youngest child D.J. Conner on Roseanne, was just six years old when the show began, and became close with Metcalf’s oldest daughter, Zoe Perry. (Perry’s father is Jeff Perry, another Steppenwolf co-founder; Metcalf has three other children with her now-ex-husband, Matt Roth, who played Jackie’s boyfriend Fisher on Roseanne.) Fishman told me he watched some of Metcalf’s best work on set take place when the camera wasn’t even on her, and he spoke of her meticulous method of adding layers of detail to a scene, even one in which she barely speaks.

“There’s an episode in the new season where she’s frustrated, and she’s cleaning up crumbs on the table,” he says. “She’s sweeping them into this little pile and you can just feel it building as the scene goes on, and as everybody walks away she’s building it and building it and building it, and she looks around and there’s nowhere to put them, and she takes the whole pile and just whacks it with the sponge and wipes them across the room. It was so perfect for the frustration she had throughout the scene, and it’s not in the script.”

Fishman adds, “I think she was underrated for a while because people didn’t fully grasp how detailed and nuanced she was. I think people have realized now. The secret’s out.”

I leave a few minutes before my time’s up, because Laurie Metcalf has a schedule to keep, and I’ll be damned if I get in the way of all that greatness. She goes over the script at 6:30 each evening before the show, saying every one of her lines out loud. “It’s very lonely,” she says. “But it’s a good mental and vocal warm-up.” I thank her for her time and slip back out into the alley.

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Spectacle, Sex, and Subversive Cinema in Russellmania

“There really is no difference between nuns with no clothes on and tap dancers in goggles. It is all material,” said Ken Russell. For the (now-eightysomething) filmmaker in his prime, art and history were carnival grounds for exhilarating spectacle and Romantic mania. A nine-film series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center showcases the British director during his most brightly blazing streak, both heady highs and interchangeable lows.

A childhood fan of musicals (and, later, The Red Shoes), and a failed but enthusiastic dancer, Southampton-born Russell cut his teeth first on photography and then on a BBC arts program. Taking over from John Schlesinger on the show Monitor, he quietly made often riotously imaginative biographies of composers such as Sir Edward Elgar and Debussy. Later on, he portrayed Richard Strauss in a Nazi-filled “comic strip in 7 episodes,” causing a rift—albeit after getting safely established with a theatrical success, Women in Love. “Russellmania” regrettably skips these key small-screen triumphs, but that don’t-touch-that-dial eagerness is apparent in the often bravura openings of his features, including that well-spoken 1969 D.H. Lawrence adaptation. Russell begins by elegantly rendering the novelist’s surging ruminations and observations, as sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson, in exquisite colors) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) wittily bat about opinions on marriage within sight of a wedding. Despite the acrobatic nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, or Bates’s delirious flight into forest and fields earlier, the film keeps one foot on the ground: Lawrence’s characters still feel like they are negotiating new ways of loving rather than exploding outward as in Russell’s subsequent work.

Case in point: The Music Lovers, an extended 1970 fever dream on Tchaikovsky’s sexual torment that opens in medias res with a wordless scene of lushly scored winter revelry. In a favored Russell technique, single events—like a public recital wracked with excitement and insecurity—are elongated by long fantasy sequences, and whole stretches of images seem pushed and pulled along before our eyes by projected desires and anxieties. Cutting himself off from a secret relationship with a count, Tchaikovsky convinces himself to accept the fanaticism of an admirer (Jackson, a Russell axiom), and weds to pursue a new fantasy. As the composer-conductor, Richard Chamberlain looks like he might shiver into pieces.

It’s not all agony: Savage Messiah, about early Russell muse Henri Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska, is as intoxicated with folly as fun. Intransigent, vulnerable, and a true original, Polish-accented Brzeska (fascinating, small-featured Dorothy Tutin) sticks with sculptor Gaudier through his goofy iconoclasm (clambering atop statues, tweaking George Bernard Shaw) and his whoring (which she pays for). For once, the attachment is credible, the countercultural nostalgia bearable because of Tutin alone. Derek Jarman’s sets (whether for grotty ateliers or Helen Mirren’s naughty suffragette cabaret act) underline an important factor that cultic Russell auteurists might note: the production teams who made his mad orchestrations pop, including then-wife Shirley, costume designer.

In fact, The Boy Friend, a candy-colored wide-screen musical for MGM/EMI, makes one rue a missed career churning out confections. In a rundown Portsmouth theater abuzz with the surprise visit by a Hollywood mogul, Twiggy plays a droopy-eyed understudy ingenue, and the sheer number of numbers delights—Busby Berkeley pinwheels (on a turntable set!), art deco tableaux, Tommy Tune one-man-showmanship. The musical’s joys shouldn’t be too surprising, given that editorial free association and flights of fancy were second nature to the director of Lisztomania. The demented singsong patter throughout The Boy Friend also reflects the vital vocal conviction among Russell’s actors. Witness Vanessa Redgrave, a scoliotic mother superior in The Devils, as she still manages to surprise with a queer chuckle or well-timed “Cock!” Or Russell regular Reed as a seductive priest scolding his besieged town to overcome its all too useful hysteria.

Russell fatigue—Mahler, Valentino—is just as real as Russellmania, but his finer moments outlast the noise of admirers and detractors alike. And it’s hard to resist the spirit of a filmmaker who responded to one film critic simply by whapping him with a newspaper on TV.