A New Beginning for Albee's All Over

12/14/2009 11:43 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Taking my seat at a reading of Edward Albee's 1971 play All Over last weekend, I noticed a familiar figure in the seat behind me: white hair, mustache, narrow frame, and the plain attire (button-down shirt, khakis, Rockports, tube socks) of a man who needs only words to distinguish himself. It was Edward Albee. "Am I blocking your view?" I asked. "Not to worry," he said, "I've seen the play before."

Mr. Albee, at 81, still keeps his wits in sharp condition. How nice it was, his seat mate observed a few moments later, that the Atlantic Theater Company (whose main theater we were in) had found such a good use for an old church. "Indeed," replied Mr. Albee dryly, "they should make more churches into theaters."

But as enjoyable as it was to eavesdrop on the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the reason for our visit was the aforementioned reading. All Over is not one of Albee's better-known plays, nor was it one of his more warmly-received in its first production. Its apparently somber subject--a family waiting for the death of a distinguished, elderly husband and father--and its predominantly older characters (several are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties) may have had something to do with this cool reception.

So it was all the more audacious for The Common Tongue, a theater company consisting entirely of actors in their twenties, to choose this play for its reading. But All Over has already become a kind of touchstone for the group, which was formed last year by several alumni of the Atlantic Theater Company's training program. The company has presented two previous readings of the play, one relatively straightforward, the second highly stylized and experimental, but both using only young actors.

Since the company's mission emphasizes "process" and the "re-imagining of pre-existing works," anyone who guessed that the third reading would be utterly unlike the first two would have been quite correct. The change this time, at once radical and surprisingly effective, was to double-cast the play, incorporating a second group of age-appropriate actors. Thanks in part to Mr. Albee's liking for this idea, the director, Danny Mitarotondo, was able to recruit a sterling cast that included Marian Seldes, a veteran of many Albee plays, whose presence in the role of the wife was a particular joy.

What did this double-cast reading look like exactly? The actors sat in a semi-circle across the stage, each young actor sitting beside his or her older counterpart. I wondered who would speak first. For much of the first act, the age-appropriate cast had a sizable majority of the lines. Perhaps this decision was made partly in deference to these venerable actors, and indeed it was a great pleasure to hear and see these actors (who included, in addition to Ms. Seldes, Kathleen Butler, Philip Carlson, Peter Brouwer, Denise Lute, Jacquelyn Landgraf, and Sid Williams) at work. But as the reading went on, the members of The Common Tongue (including Michael Pantozzi, Lila Dupree, Susannah Frith, Amelia Rose, Paul Corning, Jr., Sarah Kauffman, and Shai Trichter) were given somewhat more to do, and lines would be passed back and forth between the two versions of the character.

Sometimes this trading of lines worked quite elegantly, as, for example, in a monologue by the mistress, played by Kathleen Butler and TCT member Lila Dupree. When the character began to speak of her first love, the summer she was 15, the lines passed seamlessly from Ms. Butler to Ms. Dupree, returning to Ms. Butler when the recollection was over. At moments like this, as Mr. Albee commented in a question-and-answer session after the reading, one felt the sense not simply of a younger and an older character, but of two different versions of the same character that complemented each other organically.

Naturally, if the company is to stage this production, which it appears keen to do, the double-casting concept will need to continue to evolve. Many seemed to agree that the balance of lines between the younger and older casts should be more even. But overall the mood was buoyant afterward, especially when Mr. Albee, not one to bestow praise casually, remarked that the reading had gone "infinitely better than I thought it would." In case anyone were to mistake this for damning with faint praise, he went on to remark that he had been, to his surprise, moved by the reading."You are not supposed to be moved by your own play," he told the audience, but in later years, he said, "even though you know every f-ing line of the play, you become part of the audience." In this reading, he felt All Over had become a "new play."

If the reasons for this young company to stage a reading of a play about aging and death were not entirely clear from the start, they seemed much clearer by the end. All Over is simply a very good play which deserves to find a new audience. If The Common Tongue manages to bring this play back, as it were, from the dead, the results will be fascinating to see.