Te Karanga, K’Rd Auckland
April 5 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

ALTHOUGH not as famous nor as Pulitzer-prize winning as his other plays, Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby pulls his trademark psychological punch. It’s a classic black box play: for most of the story the audience is kept on tenterhooks wondering what will happen next, and what is really happening. Some audience members don’t like to be kept dangling over an uncertain dramatic precipice; I personally loved every minute of it.

The play starts off conventionally enough: some time after Boy meets Girl, they have a baby. That is only the first line of the play, of course. Played perfectly in glazed blond beauty by Rachael Blampied, Girl manages to breastfeed both her baby and the panting Boy (Jonny Hair, in a sweetly obsessive performance) at almost the same time. Yes, this is (partially) a play about sex, with lots of discussions of the no-holds barred variety, which quickly get the audience rolling around in laughter. My favourite conversation was the one about mountain climbing, not least because I had once hit upon the very same metaphor with a lover, believing it to be original. But enough of unwanted personal confessions, on with the play.

Soon there is trouble in paradise. Man (a sardonic Simon Clark) enters and it is clear his relationship with the other characters – and even the audience, whom he addresses directly – is not particularly benign. He is joined by Woman (Cherie James in a darkly comic performance) who is prone to discussing her “lovely breasts” at length with the audience, much to the thinly veiled distaste of Man. Both these characters go off into long segues about disguise, appearance and the arts which are reminiscent of (and, we realise later, are in fact) author rants.

By this time the audience are leaning forward in their chairs, wondering what is going on. Boy and Girl do not realise they are in a play; Man and Woman do, and take every opportunity to include the audience in their plans to upset the pretty younger pair. From there on in the play starts to take the kinds of the twists and turns that only a warped genius like Mr Albee could dream up. Man and Woman have the power to replay various scenes, to question the truth of stories that have already been told, to control the action of the other two characters and (we increasingly suspect) to manipulate the sensibilities of the audience.

Of course, the delightful Mr Albee has been playing with us all along. This is not a Play About a Baby at all. The Baby is a red herring, or more accurately, an empty banket bundle, a theatre trick we only believe because we are in the theatre. This is a play about us, about how we watch plays and interpret information. It’s also a – will anyone panic if I use this word? – Existentialist play. Who are we? Maybe we’re all just characters in a bigger play. How do we really know that we are real? Albee puts forward an idea, as true for life as it is for dramatic writing: “If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive? How can you know who you are?”

This is a complex play full of complex ideas. It’s full of long monologues too – not easy to pull off, but the actors playing Man and Woman (Clark and James) do most of it with clarity and precision. The younger pair are played with a convincing mix of innocence and steeliness by Blampied and Hair who each take admirable dramatic and physical risks. Director Charlie Unwin has done a good job of teasing out the major ideas in Albee’s work and presenting them with the right mix of insight and mystery – the audience still has to do the hard work of figuring it all out. The new “semi round” seating arrangement makes the most of a difficult space and perfectly suits this style of play.

If all this philosophical talk is putting you off, don’t let it. The Play About the Baby is the kind of play that will have its audience helpless with laughter while pushing them to think hard. You’ll walk out the door with both a smile and a frown on your face.