EVERYTHING IN THE GARDEN is like a gin and tonic when you're expecting martinis: weaker, heavier, and maybe just a trifle too bitter to be really intoxicating. In adapting the play by the British Giles Cooper, Edward Albee has unfortunately burdened an amusing premise--that a group of suburban ladies should take up part-time prostitution--with all the weight of a major statement on the Decline of the American Empire. Everything in the Garden is basically an entertainingly sardonic drawing room comedy and Albee should have treated it as such.
The Little Foxes Go to the Surburbs would have been the better title for what Albee has given us. Composed of equal parts naivete' and cliche', the play is all about Money and the Tyranny with which it Rules our damnable Lives. Albee's irony is that society condemns moon-lighting as a call girl, but rewards the more pervasive practitioners of the art like the research chemist who perfects germ warfare or the publisher who exploits trash. And so we enter the Age of the Whore.
The metaphor is a compelling one, even if Albee treats it too literally and tediously. When the play turns from sociological truisms to comic treatment of the manners of society, Albee is back in his own milieu. Richard Kerry's bland, but tasteful, set locates the action inescapably in a living room in modern suburbia -- right down to the inevitable green velveteen furniture. Richard (Robert Fox-worth) and Jenny (Jane Cronin) act like they just stepped out of a Raleigh commercial. In actuality, they are the kind of people who smoke bad cigarettes only because they are so deeply in hock that they depend on the coupons. Although Albee struggles through the exposition painfully slowly, he does at least grab onto the right details.
If Miss Cronin doesn't have enough flair to be the proper Albee bitch, the position is adequately filled by Paddy Croft as Mrs. Toothe, the directress of a high class cathouse. Her scenes with her "little flock," most of whom number among Richard and Jenny's neighbors, manage to straddle the opposing tendencies in the play. Added to Richard's amazed discovery of the thousands of dollars his wife has stashed away, she is faced with the fact that the slightly surreal is usually more effective than the sermon.
ALBEE, though, betrays himself and the real force behind his vision by reaching too quickly for what has become the Superhero of the Sixties: he, of course, is Richard and Jenny's fifteen-year-old son. As played by Jack Simons, Roger is a kind of caustic Graduate. He is forced into combatting rampant evils like anti-Semitism with bewildered protests such as "Quite a lot of us are circumcised." (Try that at your parents' next bash.) From the audience's enthusiastic reception -- even though many looked suspiciously like their stage counter-parts -- it seems America finally does believe that there is indeed no such thing as a bad boy. Until he grows up and buys his home in the suburbs, that is.
The competence of the current Charles production really should have been devoted to one of Albee's better plays--almost any of them would have qualified. Everything in the Garden needs to be pruned down to one act and perhaps trimmed of a few low-hanging morals. As for Albee, he'd better return to his former role of understanding bartender. He's a pretty understanding guy when he just listens and passes on what he hears, but when he starts talking about how rotten the whole world is you'd better forget it.