By Lucy Komisar
Edward Albee‘s 1991 play “Three Tall Women” is the attempt of a gay male to get into the psyches of three women, or rather of one women at three stages of her life, played by three actresses on stage at the same time. It is reportedly inspired by his adoptive mother, whom he despised.
So, you get a clueless young girl marrying a rich man for money, morphing into a cynical lady in her 50s, and a nasty old woman past 90. Mostly about their interactions with men, nothing about their own hopes or dreams. Joe Mantello is expert at making a fantasy naturalistic, even if I never believed it.
It starts with three women who don‘t have names: “A” an old lady of 91 or maybe 92 (Glenda Jackson), “B” a caregiver of 52 (Laurie Metcalf), and “C” a young lawyer of 26 (Alison Pill).
Jackson wears a purple skirt and tunic, long strands of pearls, and has gray marceled hair. She is soignée. She is ill, her arm in a sling, beyond repair. Her voice is high, musical, tremulous, crying out. She is mesmerizing.
They discuss age and death. Jackson dominates, a bit flaky, she breaks a glass, needs help to move to sit. Losing her inhibitions, a mark of dementia, she talks about a ˜smart little Jew.”
“B,” says, “At least she didn‘t say kike.” But lawyer “C” complains about “A‘s” unpaid bills as well as anti-Semitism.
The old woman is angry, nasty, almost in a permanent fury, self-involved, her face frozen into sad terror, though at that age you tend to forgive it, because you know she is dying. A lady of means, she accuses servants: “Everybody‘s robbing me blind.”
Then their identities morph into “A” at the varied stages of her life. You get a handle on her life, as the other two become her younger and middle years. Albee seems to want to show how she got that way. But he doesn‘t. She didn‘t have many choices, but he never deals with her except as an appendage of a man.
Pill, the trendy lawyer, is elegant in a black suit and heels, then goes back decades as a silly juvenile fearful of the future: “isn‘t there happiness along the way?” We learn she married for money at 28. If this is 1999, that was the 1930s. Not a time for women who could manage to do much besides make a good marriage.
Her husband liked tall women, apparently what attracted him to her. But she didn‘t show much interest in him, didn‘t give him much joy. She wouldn‘t sleep with him.
Metcalf, very fine as “B,” is dour. diffident, cynical and wise, comments that men cheat a lot. “We cheat because we‘re lonely.” Ah, something there. When “B” was the younger version of “A,” she enjoyed riding. And bedded the stable boy. “He leads us into hay and down we go.” Pleasure, then revenge. She gets him fired. A fire lights her eyes as she becomes the 50ish unhappy woman. “And you go around him. Once you fall, they won‘t hate you or quite as much, because you‘re not perfect.”
The son left early on. As did Albee. Now “A” complains her son doesn‘t come to see her. Though he pokes in shadowy fashion around her death bed.
Curious that Albee made “C” a lawyer but never considers what “A” and “B” might have wanted to do with their lives. Being a lawyer wasn‘t an option.
And there is where Albee, the male who didn‘t have intimate relations with women, really does not understand the woman/women he is describing. Why they age so unhappily.
Metcalf played in a brilliant, feminist “A Doll‘s House, Part 2.” I‘d love to see a feminist “Three Tall Women, Part 2.”
“Three Tall Women.” Written by Edward Albee, directed by Joe Mantello. Golden Theatre, 252 West 45 St., New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened March 29, 2018, closes June 24, 2018. 4/12/2018