Joe Mantello is a magician. Not a director, not an actor, a magician. Everything I’ve seen him do, whether it be acting or directing (okay, he is an actor and a director), is flawless, and his direction of the latest revival of “Three Tall Women” is that again, plus all the other superlatives you could think of. Of course, Joey M had the benefit of directing some of the best actresses of the modern age, as well as the rich source material of this challenging, thrilling play. I was unfamiliar with this particular Edward Albee classic, but I am happy to say that it continued the trend of my enjoying and appreciating Albee’s plays, which is a nice change of pace from my reactions to other playwright kings (*cough* Pinter *cough* Mamet*). I bought tickets to TTW superfast because Glenda Jackson, the closest you can get to royalty without being royal, was making her big return to Broadway after her amazing life of winning two Oscars, playing King Lear in London, and…serving in Parliament for more than twenty years. I had to go see the f-ing thing!
So, this play is Albee’s answer to the question of what goes through your mind when you face the moment of death, and it’s the most unique answer I’ve ever heard. It also deals with the inevitability of fate and how much it sucks to be old and how much you change as you grow old and how funny and heartbreaking Laurie Metcalf can be in the span of a few minutes. Well that last part’s not what the play is about but that’s what happens. The play is about a 92-year-old woman (played by Glenda) who is, well, 92. She old for the earth. But she’s hella fancy, and even though she’s ancient and frail, you can tell she’s rich and still able to exude a touch of the glamour she certainly had in spades years ago. She’s in her well-appointed bedroom with her strong, candid caretaker lady (Metcalf) who has the driest sense of humor and manages to make even her lines about how often the old lady pees the bed hilarious. She says that the lady’s daily doing-so is just her greeting to the day, and her delivery is, like gum, perfection.
These Two Tall Women have their regular routine disrupted by a young lawyer (Alison Pill) from the firm that handles the old lady’s finances. The youngen (the Third Tall Woman) is understandably frustrated, since the lady never returns the documents they send or keeps track of her paperwork. It’s a mess handling her money, and the lawyer grows ever more impatient with her task as the lady repeats hazy memories of her childhood in various ways instead of answering questions. The lawyer’s irritation is with the lady personally and with what happens to the mind of the elderly in general, and Metcalf’s caretaker is irritated by the lawyer’s irritation and she tries to get her to stop fighting them and accept that this is what happens when you get old. The three of them trade barbs amid Glenda’s stories, mainly about her sister and her mother, who, we are told repeatedly except when it is transferred to stories about her father, was ‘strict but fair.’
Glenda is a force in this role, which seems like it was written especially for her. Not only did she win the Tony, she won this year’s Distinguished Performance award from the Drama League, which is my favorite award of the year because only one performer gets it – no male/female, lead/supporting bullshit, ONE performance. And there was no question that she was winning it. Seeing her perform was an honor. Her rapport with Laurie’s straight-talking character is lovely in its candor and kindness, as Laurie helps steer her many stories forward but never by correcting her many mistakes. It’s clear Laurie has dealt with this for a long time and knows it’s best to let Glenda think she remembers her life accurately. The interaction between these two actors is that of masters, and Alison holds her on when thrown in there as well. You’ll notice I’m not using character names – they don’t have them. In the play, they’re listed simply as A, B, and C. Despite being specific women in this first scene, the nameless thing makes sense because they are such archetypes of their ages – the older lady who has been through it all, seen it all, and is getting it all kind of confused, and who demands to be placated by the younger women; the middle-aged woman steeped in the inevitability and effects of aging and thus resigned to the fact that we’re ‘dying from the day we’re born’; and the hotheaded, intolerant youth who thinks she knows more than everyone. In Scene 2 (the play is in two halves but I can’t say Act I or Act II because there’s no intermission, and I had to pee badly but it really was for the best, pacing-wise), the specific-yet-general form of their characters becomes even more meaningful, as they continue to fight about stages of life but with more emotional impact.
At the end of Scene 1, Glenda’s character has a heart attack or a stroke, some kind of serious incident, and the lights go out. After a pause, the lights rise, and Glenda is lying in the bed, which is now turned so her head is closest to us and the whole thing pushed farther away from us upstage, separated from the audience by a plexiglass/mirror barrier. Is she dead? Dying? Her hand flutters a bit, her head moves every now and then, so she’s not dead yet. But then all Three Tall Women – Glenda included – burst into the room. Our side of the room, which looks like it did before, only now we’re on this side of the transparent barrier, so we can all see Glenda, or whoever it is, lying in that bed like a one-sided reflection. They’re all dressed up like they just came from a fancy cocktail party, and much friendlier and more comfortable with each other than they were before. Who ARE these people, I wondered for a minute before it became clear.
Listen, I know I spoil pretty much everything I write about, but the moment in the beginning of Scene 2 when I realized what was happening, I gasped. I had no inkling what the central conceit was, or that there even was one. And I was not familiar with this play at all. Even though this production, this flawless, magical production, is closing today, it’s still a freaking Albee classic so there is a good chance you will get the chance to see it one day. And if you do, and you don’t already know what it’s about, I don’t want to spoil this realization for you because it was astounding. Everything made so much more sense and it was almost overwhelming how brilliantly it all played out. It’s absolute genius that struck me in a way few plays ever are able to.
Of course no set design this year can compare with the actual magic happening at the Harry Potter theatre, but part of me was wishing for this to win the Tony for set design, because that plexiglass barrier is so much more than meets the eye. The barrier between the two versions of that bedroom and what they, and the barrier itself, represent, was clever stage magic of the old school variety. How they managed to get certain things to reflect on themselves wherever the mirror was while others – namely, the three women – did not, I will never understand. And it’s ironic, because that’s all the three women do while in this antechamber version of the room: reflect on themselves. The only thing more astonishing that the central concept and how well it’s reinforced, and the incredibly nuanced expert acting, and the staging, and the directing, and everything, is the very last moment, which thank god is followed by the blackout because it rips you apart with its genius. Similar in nature to the final moment of “Hamilton”, it brings everything about the play together in one simple, sad, sweet act, and I gasped again so hard it was like a scream. So without saying anything more, we can simply say that this production forked me up big time. If I had one play-related wish to make, it would be that this was recorded for the Lincoln Center archives and that they decide to let PBS air it so everyone’s lives can be so enriched.
I mean it’s closing today. If PBS doesn’t air it, get a NYC library card and then join the waitlist to watch it at Lincoln Center archives. Worth it.
I saw a matinee so only Alison Pill came out. Honestly I don’t know what I’d think of the world if it was one where Glenda Jackson stage-doored.