Nursery Crimes

April 2001--The Play About the Baby, Edward Albee's latest metaphysical puzzle, begins with a couple named Boy and Girl. They are young, gorgeous, half-naked, in love. Comparisons with Adam and Eve are in order, as they vividly recount their pleasure in each other's body. Their happiness is completed by the birth of a baby (an offstage event).

Unfortunately, there's always a serpent in paradise. In this case, there are two, in the persons of an older couple, Man and Woman, who mysteriously appear and take over the stage. They are funny, garrulous--they indulge themselves in long, wandering monologues--and faintly menacing. The Boy and Girl are at first bemused by them, then turn actively hostile. Suddenly, the older pair's intention is revealed: they have come for the baby. Suddenly, the baby has vanished. Or so it seems. That is, if there ever was a baby.

There are many ways to look at Albee's latest invention. Perhaps the Man and Woman represent the future of the Boy and Girl. Or the older couple might be demonic messengers, sent to teach the youngsters an unforgettable lesson about the malevolence of the universe. Or we might be seeing an abstract conversation between the voices of innocence or experience. The only concrete thing is the distinct chill left by Albee's blackly comic text.

What is certain is that designing such a project is a very tricky endeavor. At Off Broadway's Century Theatre, John Arnone has provided a vivid playroom for Albee's sinister games. There are a pair of giant building blocks onstage, with an enormous pacifier. Hanging from the rafters are an old-fashioned rocking horse and a pram. The effect is whimsical at first, increasingly creepy as the play goes on.

Arnone, who recently designed Albee's Tiny Alice, at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, says that his big challenge lay in convincing the author that there should be a set at all. "He was adamant that there should be no set for this production," the designer recalls. (Interestingly, the play's London premiere, designed by Tim Hatley, featured the sparest of sets--four chairs in an otherwise empty space). At first, Arnone and director David Esbjornson were stopped cold by Albee's dictum. "Clearly, something had to be installed for the actors to move around on," says Arnone.

A meeting with the playwright turned into the kind of philosophical debate you find in an Albee play, turning on the meaning of the words within "set design." At a production meeting, the playwright produced a photo from the show's previous production at Houston's Alley Theatre. "It was a photo of what he thought was a non-set design," says Arnone. "And I said, 'But I see a platform, color on the flats, a lighting design, entrances and exits: it is a set design.' Edward said, 'That is not a set.'"

Arnone says he even briefly considered withdrawing from the project while Esbjornson and producer Elizabeth I. McCann had further discussions with Albee. Then, says the designer, at the next production meeting, the playwright announced that his dictum "didn't eliminate, maybe, the idea of hanging baby carriages or enormous pacifiers. The floodgates opened up and liberated us in terms of what could be represented onstage."

Thus Arnone came up with "an all-white, three-portal set in perspective that would be a nursery of the mind. It isn't necessarily surreal; it's warm and comfortable, but it can become arid, lonely, and frightening." The designer made the blocks and the pacifier enormous so they "took on a certain superreality." (The blocks also provided the actors with seats, as well). Since those pieces are modern looking, the designer then added the rocking horse and the pram because "I wanted something antique, with a sense of memory about it. Those two pieces were hung because we felt they were part of the past, almost a collective consciousness."

The effect of these objects is, says Arnone, "not a specific reality, but something enlarged and askew. It also tries to answer Albee's question, which is: What is more real--the way you imagine something or the way you observe it? One's sense of reality is not as specific or reliable as you might think it is. That's what we're trying to illustrate in the design, the idea of objects not being the size you expect them to be--and yet, you take them for granted."

As is perhaps inevitable with an Albee play, the critics read all sorts of meanings into Arnone's play. Hilariously, Donald Lyons of the New York Post mistook the pacifier for "an enormous nursery light." In the New York Times, Ben Brantley noted that the letters A, G, E, and S could be found on the blocks and suggested that Arnone was spelling out the word "Ages." "Of course, it doesn't," says the designer, who adds that, no matter what letters he used, somebody would impose a meaning on it.

Arnone adds that the horse and pram were rigged to track offstage during the latter moments of the play, when the Boy and Girl are stripped of any illusions regarding their happiness. "Edward thought that was too editorial an idea," he says, adding that lighting designer Kenneth Posner "came up with a series of brilliant cues that helped those moments become more arid." Posner adds that his work on the show "was the ultimate in simplicity. The play has an arc, where the lighting starts off warm and serene, like light streaming through a child's nursery. As the plot takes this weird twist, the lighting shifts in color and texture. It happens excruciatingly slowly, so by the end of the play, we arrive at a cold, lonely, abandoned nursery."

The lighting designer's plan was to "begin with the thinnest of thin pastel warm tones. There's an eggshell quality to the light. Then it shifts to darker, colder sidelight at steeper angles. It's almost as if there's one slow, continuous painful cue to get to that state. In fact, there's a total of 27 light cues."

Arnone's scenery is designed to work with the lighting. "The scenic portals are covered in muslin," he says, "which has a reflective surface. The muslin is then covered with netting that has been dyed a tobacco color. The light goes through the off-color buff netting and reflects off the white of the natural muslin to give it a depth and shimmer that it normally wouldn't have. The carpet on the floor is a ribbed pattern, divided into oatmeal, tobacco, and beige tones and that became the palette for the piece. It's a layering of fabrics that's very simple. It's really Kenny's work that amplifies the mood changes of the piece." Both designers are responsible for a nursery into which only the most fearless adults should tread.

Scenery for The Play About the Baby was supplied by Atlas Scenic Studios, John Creech Design & Production, and Tom Carroll Scenery. Lighting equipment was supplied by Big Apple Lighting. Other personnel included assistant set designer Jesse Poleshuck, assistant lighting designer Stephen Brady, production carpenter Mark Willoughby, production rigger Jeffrey Hatfield, production props Kathy Fabian, production electrician Stephen A. Catron, and electrician Rebecca Mercier. The production also features costumes by Michael Krass and sound by Donald DiNicola.

With some of the best reviews of the season for both the play and for Brian Murray and Marian Seldes (who both make indelible impressions as the Man and Woman), The Play About the Baby continues its open-ended run.

Photos: Carol Rosegg.