The current Broadway season is all about the revivals. The new plays have been middling at best, and the new musicals — apart from the exquisite The Band’s Visit — have been a mixture of lackluster Hollywood tie-ins and desultory jukebox shows.
But the revivals are another story entirely, especially when it comes to plays. Sure, M. Butterfly was dismal, and Time and the Conways was a bit of a snooze, but Lobby Hero is taut and features four indelible performances. And Angels in America is spectacular in every sense of the word, a crackling revival of a monumental American play, with sensitive direction and a nearly perfect cast.
All of which can also be said about the newly opened Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-Prize winner and late-career masterpiece, Three Tall Women. From the very beginning of the current production, you can tell you’re in the presence of greatness, in terms of the craft of the piece itself, the sure hand of director Joe Mantello, and the sheer stage mastery of the cast.
Three Tall Women is one of Albee’s most deeply personal works, dealing head-on with his discordant relationship with his own adoptive mother. And yet, as with any great play, Albee’s scope here is wider than just his own family. His characters — or, really, just one character, as we eventually discover that the titular tall women are really just the same woman at three different ages — represent a steely-eyed dissection of youthful idealism and its inevitable disintegration.
Despite the dour nature of the show’s theme, it surprisingly never becomes depressing or maudlin, mostly because Albee clearly has an underlying, maybe even begrudging admiration for the tripartite woman at the center of the show. Even while he forces her to face the cold, harsh truth, he provides her with the strength to face it down.
I recall seeing Three Tall Women in London in 1995 with Maggie Smith playing A, the 92-year-old version of the play’s central female. About the only thing I remember from that production is how Maggie Smith made every single one of her lines hysterical, as Smith is wont to do. In retrospect, as enjoyable as the production was while it lasted, the excess levity would seem to be at odds with the gravity of Albee’s intent.
Director Joe Mantello reveals a much more delicate hand with the present Broadway revival. There’s much humor to be found here, but never at the expense of Albee’s words. Mantello’s production is simple, but elegant, spare in terms of action but rich in emotional resonance. Miriam Buether’s stunning set design, particularly in a jaw-dropping set change half-way through the play, both literally and figuratively adds depth to the playing area, and creates a stunning stage picture that adds haunting layers to the already complex proceedings.
Of course, Mantello’s direction and Buether’s design would be for naught if it weren’t for two and a half of the strongest performances you’re likely to see on Broadway this season. Having the great Glenda Jackson and last year’s Tony winner Laurie Metcalf on the same stage is almost too much majesty for one mere production to contain. Despite her two decades away from the profession, Jackson has lost none of her fire, none of the power in her thunderous voice. The role of A, the eldest of Albee’s three women, seems tailor made for Jackson and her captivating stage presence.
As B, the middle-aged tall woman, Laurie Metcalf returns to the same theater in which she triumphed last season in A Doll’s House, Part 2, once again in complete command of the stage, even as she’s just stretching out upstage while the other performers interact. Metcalf, too, seems to have been born to play this role, particularly B’s bitter world-weariness and volatility. Allison Pill as C, the youngest of the women, almost matches the other two performers in presence, at least during the first half of the show, but she loses depth and impact as her character starts to unravel in the later moments of the play.
Alison Pill (foreground), Glenda Jackson (background) in ‘Three Tall Women;’ photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
But, really, it’s sort of unfair to hold Pill to the exacting standard of her costars. As if it weren’t already enough that we have this deeply compelling play by an American master, directed to near perfection by one of our finest living directors, featuring two of the most powerful performances you’re likely to see in this or any season. Trust me, it’s more than enough.
Three Tall Women at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, in an open-run. Running time: one hour and forty-five minutes, no intermission. Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Joe Mantello; scenic design by Miriam Buether; costume design by Ann Roth; lighting design by Paul Gallo; sound design by Fitz Patton; hair and make-up design by Luc Verschueren & Campbell Young Associates. Cast: Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill.
Cover: (l. to r.) Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in ‘Three Tall Women;’ photo: Brigitte Lacombe.