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'Seascape' is awash in pathos

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NEW YORK -- In Lincoln Center Theater's endearing revival of Edward Albee's Seascape (*** out of four), the curtain rises on a quiet beach set against a vast blue sky. This peaceful scene, meticulously detailed by Michael Yeargan, is interrupted by the howl of an airplane -- technology intruding on nature's beauty.

Such trappings of man's progress, or lack of it, become relevant in Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which premiered on Broadway in 1974. In this new production, which opened Monday at the Booth Theatre, director Mark Lamos and his cast bear that weight lightly, serving the sweetly rueful spirit that makes this one of Albee's most touching and gently provocative works.

George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen star as Charlie and Nancy, a couple of a certain age on a clearly well-earned holiday. Like many of Albee's couples, these two share a deep connection that all their quibbling can't conceal. Nancy feels that her spouse has lost his sense of adventure, while he counters that they've earned the right to rest. "You have to be pushed into everything," she complains.

One such push comes when Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel literally crawl onstage in the form of sea creatures Leslie and Sarah. Resplendent in costume designer Catherine Zuber's splashy green getups, the spry pair seems threatening at first. But their curiosity about human ways tickles Nancy and Charlie, and before long, the four are engaged in a lively exchange of ideas and information.

Seascape derives its humor and pathos both from the similarities that emerge between the couples and what the humans, particularly Charlie, perceive as a superiority endowed by evolution. Sarah and Leslie's menacing movements are offset by comic lines that invite parallels between their relationship and that of their more seemingly sophisticated counterparts.

Things become more tense as Charlie grows frustrated with the creatures' inability to grasp basic concepts of life as he and Nancy know it. After a confrontation, Sarah and Leslie decide to go back underwater. "You'll have to come back sooner or later," Nancy tells them.

Sternhagen captures Nancy's good-natured pluck, while Grizzard is fine as her warier but still vital spouse. And Weller and Marvel make a droll duo.

For them, perhaps, it's not easy being green eight times a week. But this Seascape is a cinch to enjoy.

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