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Three Tall Women

It’s nothing less than thrilling to see Glenda Jackson, the two-time Oscar winner, in her first New York stage production on Broadway since 1988.

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Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in a scene from Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” (Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

I’m both old enough and fortunate enough to have seen Glenda Jackson play Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade, in 1967. And seeing her now, in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, I’m here to tell you that she has the same timbre to her voice and the same feisty spirit that she displayed fifty years ago. It’s nothing less than thrilling to see the two-time Oscar winner in her first New York stage production, since she was in Macbeth on Broadway in 1988.

But I should rush to praise the play itself, not to mention this production, directed with a delicate precision by Joe Mantello. It is, as it always was, a play about three different women in the first part, who become the same person in the second part at different phases in her life. It’s a tour-de-force concept that pays off, given Albee’s bringing it together, as it were.

The three characters–delineated as “A,” “B,” and “C”–are all reputedly representatives of Albee’s adoptive mother at different periods. During the first of the two parts played without intermission (Three Tall Women was originally presented 15 years ago in two acts), the three actresses are “A,” or Albee’s elderly mother, and “B,” or her caretaker, and “C,” or A’s lawyer’s assistant, who’s come to settle certain outstanding affairs including many unpaid bills. There’s something magical about their becoming the same character in the second part, given the refreshing originality of the idea.

Glenda Jackson in a scene from Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” (Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

If you pay any attention to the Rialto, then you knew that Jackson was going to be in the play–the play that salvaged Albee’s reputation in 1993 and won him his third Pulitzer Prize–since it was announced last year. And I’m pleased to report, if you were anticipating Jackson doing Three Tall Women with high expectations, you will not be disappointed. She surpasses whatever you were expecting with a kind of fierce and cold glory, appropriate to the 92-year-old A. From B’s servitude as A’s nurse, in the first part, to her becoming the somewhat haughty, 52-year-old A, in Part 2, Laurie Metcalf negotiates the character’s huge emotional shift with ease and naturalness.

Set in her elegantly appointed bedroom (the marvelous scenic design is by Miriam Buether), the demanding and commandeering A spends most of the first part reminiscing about her past, riding horses, with “all the silver cups and bowls,” winning horse contests. But she also reveals herself with seemingly every statement, even though–as the elderly often do–she sometimes contradicts what she just said. “I was good at everything,” she says in one breath. “I don’t complain. I never complain,” she says in another, though that would appear to be patently untrue.

She also says, “Why can’t I remember anything?” with great despair. A’s memories keep tumbling out: about her competitive relationship with her sister and her complicated relationship with her short, if wealthy husband, whom she keeps referring to as the “penguin,” as well as her son, with whom she became estranged. “I’m not made of money, you know,” A also says, only to prompt B to say, “Well, yeah, you are.”

Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in a scene from Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” (Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

Though officious and somewhat aloof in the first part, both C and Alison Pill–the actress playing her–comes into her own as the 26-year-old A in the second part, telling A, “I will not become you… I deny you.” B declares that she likes being where she is–in the middle, between her younger and her older self–because “it’s the only time you get a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view–see in all directions. Wow! What a view!”

A, who became comatose after lying down in her bed at the close of Act I, remains in bed in the form of a dummy in Act II, even as Jackson reappears on stage, in a different costume, to interact with her two previous selves. (The effective costumes are by Ann Roth.) And even though her son comes to pay vigil at her bedside in the second part, he never utters a word, nor is he even listed in the program. It was nevertheless, presumably director Joe Mantello’s smart idea to cast a wispy young man, who resembles the young Edward Albee, since he essentially represents the playwright during his youth.

Though Mantello’s meticulous hand is to be seen everywhere throughout the performance, the decision to eliminate an intermission and turn the two-act play into a rather continuous one seems an odd choice. But the massive change between the characters and the acts is smartly conveyed by designer Buether, who has installed not one but two mirrored walls in the rear, between which the son hovers over his mother’s bed. There’s something truly mystical about the way the first mirrored wall both reflects what’s in front of it, and yet remains see-through. Then, in another magical moment at the end, the whole set seems to tilt, as the mirrors do.

Three Tall Women (through June 24, 2018)

Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.threetallwomenbroadway.com

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (89 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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