If it weren’t for adoption, playwright Edward Albee might never have put pen to paper. His turbulent relationship with his adoptive mother provided fertile ground for his plays, with everything from “A Play About the Baby” and “Three Tall Women” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” containing monstrous maternal figures.
Mr. Albee’s 1960 play, “The American Dream,” may be the frankest and most brutal treatment of adoption in the canon of his work. The central character, Mommy (Valerie Leonard), is a nightmare in a shirtwaist dress, a rich housewife who says the cruelest and most appalling things in a chirpy, singsong voice that would be better suited for selling laundry detergent than threatening Grandma (Vivienne Shub) that a van is coming any minute to cart her off to the old folks home.
Mommy comes off like Doris Day on dexedrine, while Daddy (Nigel Reed) is an ineffectual lump whose sole purpose seems to be paying the bills. Grandma wavers between offering pithy comments about the elderly to the audience and cowering before her daughter. Yet, as we soon discover, Grandma is anything but a doddering fool.
The arrival of Mrs. Barker (Rebecca Martin, a few decades too young for the role), a cordial stranger who has no idea why she’s there — and who, for some unknown reason, removes her dress and spends the rest of the play in her slip and corset — sets the plot in motion. Grandma spills the beans that Mommy and Daddy have a secret about a child they adopted long ago, a boy they found “defective” and treated accordingly.
They want their money back, or at least a better replacement.
Things get even more bizarre when the Young Man (Lucas Kavner) appears on the scene. His good looks and Teflon quality make him the embodiment of the American dream — but who is the Young Man, and what ties him to Mommy and Daddy?
We never really learn who the Young Man is or, indeed, if he actually exists. “The American Dream” is a self-consciously absurd play, a grab bag of elements that are supposed to be farcical and disturbing but are off-putting instead.
This one-act work may have been a great way for Mr. Albee to work through issues with his adoptive parents, but it leaves the audience confused and estranged.
It doesn’t help that the Potomac Theatre Festival production, directed by Richard Romagnoli, is seriously under-rehearsed, with the timing and rhythms so far off-kilter you can only hope things will get smoother with time.
Director Chris Hayes has an easier go of it with two Harold Pinter short pieces, “Press Conference” (2002) and “One for the Road” (1984). The first, more a brief sketch than a one-act, depicts a Minister of Culture (Richard Pilcher) in a police state. The Minister, a former head of the secret police, genially entertains questions from the press (Lucas Kavner, Rebecca Martin).
He speaks blithely about his policies on women: “We raped the women. It was part of an educational process.” And the treatment of children: “We distrusted children if they were the children of subversives. We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them.” With a broad smile, he talks of what happens to dissenters — not very pretty.
“Press Conference” fades into “One for the Road,” in which Nicolas (Richard Pilcher) hoists a few cocktails in between interrogating and torturing a man (Nigel Reed), his wife (Rachel Dunlap) and their 9-year-old daughter (Hope Romagnoli). While soft instrumental music plays in the background, Nicolas natters away, with an urbane smile never leaving his lips.
However, the fear and tension in the room are nearly unbearable, as the various victims express pain and the humiliation of helplessness. Mr. Reed is particularly affecting as the man, someone rendered nearly mute and still by this sadistic experience, yet the life force still burns within him.
Mr. Pilcher is also chillingly good as Nicolas, bustling around mixing cocktails and reading the Bible as his victims writhe about his well-shod feet. His last line is a killer, but he knows how to play the moment without giving away anything too soon.
The political climate has vastly changed since Mr. Pinter wrote “One for the Road” in 1984; nonetheless, his play is as timely and risky as ever. It still holds the tremendous capacity to provoke and shock.
WHAT: “The American Dream” by Edward Albee, “Press Conference” and “One for the Road” by Harold Pinter
WHERE: Potomac Theatre Project, Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney.
WHEN: Wednesdays through Sundays, running in repertory with “Lovesong of the Electric Bear” and “Somewhere in the Pacific.” Through Aug. 7.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS