LOLITA, by Edward Albee, from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; directed by Frank Dunlop; scenery by William Ritman; costumes by Nancy Potts; lighting by David F. Segal; with Donald Sutherland, Ian Richardson, Clive Revill and Shirley Stoler.
At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York City.
Now that Edward Albee's "Lolita" has reached Broadway, wafting south from Boston on a hot breeze of commotion over its "simulated sex" scenes, there is new evidence for an enduring cultural principle -- that when a work of art provokes outcry, it is usually over something insignificant, tangetial or, indeed, nonexistent.
As it turns out, the simulated sex in "Lolita" is simulated with breathtaking -- almost unseemly -- discretion. A curtain descends in front of the actors mere moments after they have begun to simulate. As it further turns out, the institution of sex is one of the minor victims of this production's battery of offenses to life and art -- a fast hit-and-run on the road to the real bloodbath.
The casualty list should probably begin with the memory of Vladimir Nabokov and the related memory of "Lolita," the 1954 novel which generated its own misleading scandal in the placidity of the Eisenhower years. Next on the list, speaking of memories, comes that of playwright Edward Albee, who used to construct enthralling worlds of his own instead of diluting and polluting environments created by others.
Next, turning themeward, come the majesty of human passion and the related majesty of human madness. (Can madness be majestic? Nabokov clearly thought it could be, and, thunder of God, he convinced many a reader.) And then comes the dignity of the human female -- girl and woman.
A heavy indictment. Regard the evidence:
Anyone who has read "Lolita" will wonder how it could possibly be transferred to the stage. The book is the story of Humbert Humbert, 40ish, European-bred scholarly man, and his passion for Dolores Haze 12ish American nymphet girl. But the events and participants in that story are filtered through layers of revelation and obfuscation, through the gauze and mist and multicolored lights of the narrator's deranged memory, and through English prose so fluent and powerful that only a foreigner could have written it.
How could this distorted-lens vision of life be recreated with three-dimensional actors under hot lights? Well, the playwright has addressed this problem by adding an "author" figure to the cast of characters ("Vladward Albeekov," perhaps?) and by providing a jocular commentary of asides in which he and Humbert struggle for control of the plot. At the beginning, the author figure warns us that Humbert is not to be trusted -- "His interest in himself has transcended mine." And Humbert, also addressing the audience, tells us, "Ignore him. He's parenthetical."
But even as we are getting used to this curious superstructure, there are tip-offs that it won't be put to any good use. As embodied by Ian Richardson and Donald Sutherland, the author and Humbert are monotonously similar sorts -- flip, fey, polysyllabic, natty dressers both. After some brief introductory remarks by the author, Humbert saunters in through the angled panels of the stylized scenery, announces that he has fallen in love, and proceeds to read the famous first chapter of the novel (". . . light of my life, fire of my loins . . .") with all the passion of a McDonald's patron ordering a hamburger and fries to go.
Then Lolita herself is introduced, in blue ruffled dress, red lollipop and the person of Blanche Baker. Nothing amiss here -- for the time being. When you consider that she is safely past anyone's definition of the age of consent, Baker does a very convincing job of impersonating a saucy 12-year-old. But then, lo and behold, Shirley Stoler, in the character of her mother, gives an equally convincing, and thus appalling, portrayal of a blubbery comic grotesque. "Charlotte was -- I do want to be delicate about this -- something of a pig," says he caustic Humbert as we see his bride, a walrus in pink nightgown, stumble onstage with wide-open arms.
Here, as elsewhere, the real figures in Humbert's jumbled scheme of things are made to conform to his shabbiest descriptions of them, robbing the story of most of its original complexity. (In the book, Humbert describes Mrs. Haze as "that sorry and dull thing, a handsome women." But even in his mad jottings, she isn't dull, and she is the author of a heart-wrenching love letter that Stoller has been directed to read, like all the other impassioned words lifted from the book, frivolously.)
After Mrs. Haze is out of the way, and Humbert has absconded with his childlet, Lolita too becomes a grotesque. Instead of the novel's confusing blend of innocence and worldliness, this Lolita is a malicious, thoroughly '80s caricature of American adolecence, expressing trendy sentiments far removed from the spirit of the book. ("You don't love me," she tells Humbert, "all you want's your [expletive deleted].")
All this is in keeping with Albee's decision to update the story by 30 years or so. Unfortunately, this move uproots both the character and events from the whole moral context of the book -- an alteration far more drastic than Stanley Kubrick's addition of several years to Lolita's age when he cast Sue Lyon to play her in the movie. In fact, in the few moments when "Lolita" is entertaining, it is largely due to Clive Revill's devilish performance as Quilty, in which he almost seems to be imitating Peter Sellers' wonderfully satisfying movie portrayal.
(Albee has attacked the movie as unfaithful, but the charge seems absurd next to all the play's acts of unfaith -- for example, having Mrs. Haze die by falling down a flight of stairs, gun in hand, after trying to shoot Humbard.)
Of course, there is no rule that requires an adaptation to be true to the original, in letter or spirit. There are a few broad rules, however, about what constitutes a successful play -- rules that have to do with exciting or illuminating or transforming an audience. On this count, as on all the others, the verdict is guilty.