James Carpenter and Ellen McLaughlin play a couple startled by human-sized lizards (Sarah Nina Hayon and Seann Gallagher) in American Conservatory Theater’s “Seascape.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

James Carpenter and Ellen McLaughlin play a couple startled by human-sized lizards (Sarah Nina Hayon and Seann Gallagher) in American Conservatory Theater’s “Seascape.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

MacKinnon kicks off ACT tenure with Albee’s striking ‘Seascape’

What longtime American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff was to British playwright Tom Stoppard, so new artistic director Pam MacKinnon is to Edward Albee, and her affinity for (and previous professional relationship with) the late American playwright is evident in his Pulitzer Prize winner “Seascape,” her first directorial venture in her new post.

She and her crack team of actors — Ellen McLaughlin and James Carpenter as an older couple on a seaside picnic and Seann Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon as a pair of humanoid lizards who’ve ventured onto dry land with thoughts of relocating — dig into the humor, the absurdity and the profundity of Albee’s script.

As restless Nancy (McLaughlin) and her dour husband, Charlie (Carpenter), squabble on the beach (more about that beach later), and wade deeper into the conflicts affecting their long marriage, they’re occasionally drowned out by a deafening airplane (sound by Brendan Aanes), perhaps a harbinger of doom or symbol of an existential abyss.

“Is this what we’ve come all this way for — to do nothing?” demands Nancy, pacing about and climbing the dunes as Charlie lies immobile on a beach chair below. “Be young again, Charlie,” she nags.

Albee was not yet 50 when he wrote “Seascape,” but his understanding of long-term relationships — the love, the disappointments — and of aging is insightful.

When lizards Sarah and her mate, Leslie, slither over the rocks, in designer David Zinn’s scaly costumes, the play takes on another dimension, both funnier and more encompassing of the human (and non-human) condition.

As the two couples struggle to communicate through their fear, fascination (especially when the lizards discover Nancy has “mammaries,” like whales) and (on the part of the posturing males) contempt, deep-seated prejudices emerge and marital discord intensifies for both couples, as does evidence of the similarities between the species.

And as Charlie tries to explain how we all emerged from the primordial mud, and to describe the mysteries and scientific facts of evolution, Leslie is quick to retort indignantly, “I’ve always had a tail!”

In the hands of MacKinnon and the cast, it’s all hilarious and often poignant.

The Geary Theater has never looked quite like this before, with a scenic design (by Zinn) of crags and peaks, wild grasses and towering dunes that reach almost to the stage ceiling. It’s an all-encompassing vista that somehow connotes the ancient origins of life itself, that subject that’s so difficult for Charlie to explain.

REVIEW

Seascape
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 17
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org
American Conservatory TheaterDavid ZinnEdward AlbeeEllen McLaughlinJames CarpenterPam MacKinnonSarah Nina HayonSeann GallagherSeascapeTheater

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