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A Statutory Drama

Lolita Adapted by Edward Albee from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov Directed by Frank Dunlop At the Wilbur Theater, en route to Broadway

By Scott A. Rosenberg

LOLITA HAS BECOME a sort of under-aged siren for the creators of stage and screen, luring writers and directors to crash on the undramatic shoals of Nabokov's first-person prose. First Stanley Kubrick in his 1962 movie, then some forgotten adapter in an early '70s musical, and now Edward Albee in this vulgarized comic drama have attempted to drag Nabokov's characters from the sheltering artistry of his novel into the coldly objective glare of the theater. It's beginning to become unpleasantly clear that Lolita's appeal to directors and audiences alike lies not in its author's literary fireworks or psychological insights but instead in the simple prurient appeal of pedophilia.

Nabokov is innocent of such salaciousness, though undoubtedly Lolita's paperback sales depend on it. In his novel, he skirts pornography on one side and moralizing on the other, traveling a high road of precise plot construction and delicately tuned poetry, elevating the sordid story to a level of intensity that has far more to do with art than with Brooke Shields. But for Albee, the purity of this book was just too tempting; he apparently couldn't wait to get his hands on Nabokov's little girl, turning her from an attractive but commonplace adolescent into a loud-mouthed hellion, screeching "Dad!" at her molester step-father and punctuating her speeches with an occasional "fuck."

Given the transformation of the pre-teen rump into a sex symbol in dozens of designer-jeans ads, and the popularity of "nymphet" models on Madison Ave., staging the book that coined that term once again was more good commercial sense than homage to Nabokov. Although capitalizing on this latest fashion in exploitation shouldn't have to mean joining in gleefully, through much of Lolita that's what Albee seems to be doing. Where Nabokov will choose an elegant pun, Albee lunges for the obscene gag: where Nabokov will subtly makes you think about the arbitrariness of social rules, Albee has his dirty old man turn to the audience and ask, "Is there a pedophile in the house?"

LIVING UP to the talent of a writer like Nabokov takes some care and precision. But if this excerpt from Albee's program note is any clue, his intellect is muddied with sentiment when it comes to his predecessor: "The play of Lolita is both Nabokov and Albee...But, that being as it may...the entire work is Nabokov; it is my valentine to the great man, he who suffered fools so badly and who, so clearly, loved us all, even the Humbert Humberts and the Lolitas of this world."

Albee, in fact, is so attached to Nabokov that he can't resist introducing him onto the stage; this character, listed in the program as "A Certain Gentleman," opens and closes the play, and within it follows his characters around, chatting with them, tossing knowing asides into the audience, and generally acting urbane and oh-so-witty. Ian Richardson's letter- and paragraph-perfect performance--even his pinstripes seem to have raised eyebrows--can't entirely excuse Albee's officiousness in creating such a role. It's never pleasant to be talked down to; but when there's this character on stage telling you what to pay attention to, whom to watch carefully, you begin to wish the playwright had been a bit less clever.

Albee's "Certain Gentleman" repeatedly notes that his characters "seem to have a life of their own." That's the kind of banality Nabokov might put into the mouths of one of his caricatured academics; if only it were true about Donald Sutherland's Humbert Humbert. Albee draws Nabokov's nymphet-lover as an unsympathetic egotist; Sutherland act it as the stoop shouldered, pedantic stereotype of an child-molester. And he pronounces his lines--even those which Albee has mercifully lifted verbatim from the novel--as though someone has tried to wash out his mouth with soap and left a piece of the bar in: a muffled monotony.

During the progress of Sutherland's affair with the suitably under-ripe beauty of Blanche Baker's Lolita, Albee's penchant for moralizing asserts itself, as though, to make up for his exploitation of this theme, he decides the audience must be scolded for its interest. He chooses a moral that seems both believable, and indeed, close to Nabokov's own intentions in Lolita: Humbert's love for Lolita is the futile dream of a man doomed to try to recapture his own lost past. But Albee's Nabokov character must trudge to center-stage and tell us all this, flat out. If Albee was not playwright enough to embody this message in his dramatic writing, why didn't he leave Lolita at peace as a novel?

THERE ARE nonetheless redeeming qualities to Lolita as an evening of theater. Ian Richardson surmounts the blandness Albee packs into his lines, and though we know Nabokov would never have used a phrase like "deal with," Richardson comes close to persuading us of the possibility. William Ritman's scenery--a set of four double flats turning on hinges--subliminally recalls the flipping of a book's pages as it creates a remarkable variety of oddly-shaped stage spaces. And Frank Dunlop's direction, snappy and alert, largely neutralizes the talkiness of Albee's script, keeping attention fixed on the stage action even as it enters maddening longueurs.

The best qualities of this Lolita gather in its closing scene, to end the evening of literary vampirism on an up-beat note. Albee faithfully recreates Nabokov's part-farcical, part-horrifying murder scene: as the last act of his love-obsession, Humbert tracks down and decides to kill the man who had eventually helped Lolita escape him--the effeminate playwright Clare Quilty, played by William Mooney (standing in for Clive Revill in the performance I saw). Mooney enters from the top of a long, garishly majestic stairway leading down into a scene of post-party streamers, ashtrays and drinks. Sutherland announces his death sentence to him in the form of a ponderous poem, and pumps ineffective bullets into his bloated body. Mooney drags out his agony in a macabre parody of the death of some Roman emperor, slain at the entrance of his palace after a debauch, blood dripping down the staircase and all. It's a great scene, but quite detached from the rest of the play. At its end Sutherland unconvincingly and abruptly dies, Richardson struts forward, and the curtain drops.

In the end this Lolita suggests very simply that Nabokov's is not a novel for the stage. In print the author can swathe the transgression he is describing in bundles of carefully selected sentences that, by explaining, defending, or indicting Humbert's obsession, make us ponder its meaning. On stage, nothing tempers the nakedness of the act; and when Albee's Lolita takes off her bathrobe to say, "Come and get it, Daddy," or buries her face in Humbert's groin, Richardson must literally draw a curtain over the scene--a comic gesture that only underscores Albee's inability to find how to stage Lolita without either ponderous moralizing or trivializing farce. As long as society remains uncomfortable with this subject while simultaneously exploiting it--and that, no doubt, will be a long time--Lolita will be far safer at home with Nabokov than in some motel room with a leering playwright.

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