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CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
I went to see Malcolm wanting to like it. Cherry Red Productions, the company staging this Edward Albee dark comedy is in its final season and far better known for its campy slash 'em fare or darkly, disturbing dramas than mounting the works of Pulitzer Prize-winners. It sounded like an interesting mix. Unfortunately, I think it was an off night for DC's "only theatre company devoted to smut." The timing, so important in comedy, seemed to be off. The audience responded here and there, but not with the regularity that one expected.
Albee based Malcolm on the book of the same name by James Purdy. The book was published in 1959, the play produced in 1966. Neither garnered a great deal of critical acclaim at the time of their appearances. While Albee was criticized for simply rehashing the book and not bringing any new meaning to the material, Purdy's works have simply been hard to categorize. Stemming out of the Theatre of the Absurd, the play has a great deal of insightful humor wrapped in an unlikely scenario of insanity. And to its defense, Malcolm is a timeless story. It does not feel at all like it was written over 30 years ago. It could have been written yesterday in its handling of the subject matter.
Basically the same story -- a parable of the parental admonition "Don't talk to strangers." -- there are a couple of subtle differences between the book and the play, that may help the audience more fully understand what is transpiring. The basic story line is that a famous astrologer, Mr. Cox, discovers Malcolm, a beautiful young boy of fourteen or fifteen, sitting on a sidewalk bench in front of a hotel waiting for his father who has disappeared into thin air. Every day the boy, now living in the hotel alone, dresses in a suit and waits for his dad, who is seemingly never coming home. The astrologer takes an interest in the youth and begins sending him to various addresses around town to "experience life."
In the book, Mr. Cox is filled with his own ego and the fact that Malcolm is unimpressed with Cox's fame and position, angers the elder man and so he decides to help Malcolm -- in the same way the Wicked Witch of the West wanted to "help" Dorothy out of her ruby red slippers. However, in the play, Mr. Cox seems to simply be angered that Malcolm is sitting on a bench doing nothing. The lack of immediate sinister motivation in the play creates a lack of tension, which causes a disconnected reaction to what is happening on stage. Also in the book, Malcolm is unschooled so his lack of basic knowledge is an analogy of his being a blank slate upon which the world will write its lessons. In the play, this comes across less as innocence and naïveté and more as his being dull witted.
Director Ian Allen has created an unexpectedly traditional staging for this world-gone-topsy-turvy script. He seems to be holding back when he should be going full throttle. And this becomes very apparent when the productions two standouts walk on-stage. Carlos Bustamante and Melissa-Leigh Douglass, as the married burglar and painter Jerome and Eloisa Brace, immediately show you what the whole play could become. Both play their roles with abandoned glee. When Bustamante, in silk boxers and a woman's silk robe, lounges on the floor with his legs splayed out and discusses his communal shower experiences in prison, he does so with a leer that is the equivalent of a wink to the audience that says, "I'm having so much fun!" Melissa-Leigh Douglass' frantic, chain smoking entrance in her black and white costume looks like something out of Dr. Seuss or Alice in Wonderland. And towards the end of the second act Glee Murray settles into her skin as the obsessed Madame Girard, making her ending statements "None of you ... ever cared. None of you." that much more touching.
With 11 pm curtain times, Malcolm is definitely designed for the after dinner and drinks night out. While not for everyone, it does have a great deal of wit wrapping its inner moral messages.
If you would like more info about the playwright, check out CurtainUp's Playwright Album on Albee.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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