At the opening of Nowell's two-character play, married couple Jim and Alice are arriving home from a funeral and sitting down to dinner. Slowly, we get the sense that all is not as it seems—was the friend they've buried truly a friend? Why did she name them as beneficiaries in an insurance policy? What was the real relationship between Alice and the deceased?—each question and its revealed answer only lead to more questions, more revelations.
It's a delicious and intriguing set-up for a mystery play, and one which new playwright Nowell handles deftly. But for much of the first act, there was something about the play's process of conceal and reveal which felt too self-conscious, too writerly, too familiarly theatrical and dramatic. Some of Alice's fussy subversions felt repetitive and obvious. She gets up nervously from the table and goes into the kitchen what seems like 60 times, touches the back of her neck, fusses over plates and dinner, clutches a bottle of pills and so on.
Lane Carlock as Alice turns things around once the gloves are off, as the character skirts closer and closer to living with the truth, she reveals both Alice's tough side and the vulnerable spots that the guilt she's lived with for years has left her with. “I'm a terrible person” she cries out at one point, and Carlock brilliantly uses the simple line to evoke the character's twisted and specific sort of personal anguish. Brian Kurlander similarly gives a strong performance as Jim, conveying the characters “regular guy” facade and revealing what lies beneath it when it crumbles. Both actors have an especially strong ability with monologue. A play which depends on revelations of long, complicated, detailed incidents of a characters' past can easily become weighed down, but the superb story-telling abilities of the cast kept the long revelation scenes tense and captivating.
Much of the second act was thrilling, but I sensed that some of the audience was not along for the ride, and I suspected that what may have lost them was the problem in the first act I mentioned above: it simply takes us too long to get the wheels turning and some of the destinations that the wheels take us to feel like forced and familiar stops. The implied sense of something hidden is drawn out for far too long in the first act.
The high-ceilinged, detailed, multi-roomed set (foyer, dining room, kitchen, with glimpses of passages to other rooms, a staircase and the outdoors) in such a small theater was a stunner. It put me in mind of the famous Mae West saying, “One and one is two, two and two is four, but four and four is ten if you know how to work it right.” Scenic designer Philip Male clearly knows how to work it right. At the same time I began to wonder if something smaller, more claustrophobic, less detailed, and with fewer spaces and routes of escape might not have been a better match for the action of the play.
Both principals turn in excellent performances, and the writing is strong throughout, but in the end, Albatross remains a less than satisfactory evening. Like the characters, who decide that a better life lies ahead of them, I think the best work of the prodigiously-talented Lee Nowell is still ahead of her, and Atlanta audiences will be lucky if given the opportunity to see more.
Albatross plays at Actor's Express through November 20.
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