If Edward Albee will allow me to twist his...well, metaphor, it's the third arm that's missing from his sensationally-titled new play, "The Man Who Had Three Arms," that opened last night at the Lyceum.
It only barely qualifies as a play, at that, and calculatedly so. The title character, played with impressive versatility by Robert Drivas, is touring the lower echelons of the lecture circuit as a man who, for a while, had a third arm extending from between his shoulder blades, but that has since receded, leaving him with little to do but talk about it, instead of showing it. What, after all, is a freak show without the freak?
Introduced by a starchy clubwoman (Patricia Kilgarriff), who is in turn introduced by an old fuddy-duddy of a chairman (William Prince), the speaker recounts his history as a reasonably contented child of good family who, after proper schooling, married well, sired three healthy children, and rose to executive status in the business world until that inexplicable appendage - first, a mere "bump," but developing inch by inch into a full arm - abruptly changed the course of his life. Losing his job - due to the recession, oddly, and not the strange growth - he rapidly became a celebrity, world-famous. Taken in tow by a good-old-boy entrepreneur in a cowboy hat, a man he likens to Presley's Col. Parker, he amassed huge sums of money, all of which somehow wound up in the pocket of his manager, leaving him with huge debts following the disappearance of both arm and manager.
Now, taking this in a literal sense, it seems unlikely that a third arm would excite much greater interest after its initial unveiling, except in medical circles, than a two-headed calf, or Siamese twins, or the Elephant Man himself. But Albee is obviously using the metaphor to represent...what? Any celebrity suddenly cast out of the limelight? A once-beautiful movie star whose features have become ragged? An ace pitcher who has lost his, uhhuh, arm? A one-time brilliantly promising playwright who has lost his touch?
Drivas' lengthy monologue, now and then engaging his partners as his parents, as doctor and nurse, as wife and priest, and Prince as the aforesaid manager, is as beautifully and effectively written as one would expect from Albee. But the speaker - his wife has left him, by the way - also becomes vituperative, lashing out at female jounralists, for one thing, and complaining, especially in his stale, repeated comments on the revolting quality of most of the meals dished out by host groups on the lecture circuit. His talk is punctuated, but only very occasionally, by colored slides of the town and home in which he grew up, his schoolmates, the enormous crowds he attracted during his world tour, and other things - but not once of that extra arm, or even a simulation of it.
Drivas is so entertaining a "lecturer," and Albee so finely-honed a writer, that the talk, as much a harangue as anything else, does hold our interest throughout. But the evening is arid, the metaphor unimpressive.
Drivas' confederates perform ably as figures that are no more than stooges. Albee has staged this odd exercise efficiently in a set, by John Jensen, representing the undistinguished wood-paneled speakers' platform of some musty club - a long table with a faded velvet cloth up center, and lecterns at either side of the forestage.
It was an evening that seemed to dry up before our eyes.
What price fame? And what really happened to Elvis Presley - and his instant-celebrity ilk? For that matter, for there is a double image here, is Edward Albee still afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I'm talking about a very curious play, almost more of a harangue than a play, by Albee, which opened at the Lyceum Theater last night.
It is called The Man Who Hade Three Arms and it is vastly concerned with a danse macabre with fame, a fatal brush with the eternity of passing celebrity.
The piece is really a lecture. Or, even more really, it's a sermon in the form of a paradoxical parable. It is also extraordinarily self-indulgent, sometimes oddly touching, and written in prose of the finest purple that for the most part explodes like firecrackers on a winter night.
The actor is Robert Drivas - cast as the man who once, for some golden, fame-clad moments, had a third arm, but is now a painfully mortal mortal who drinks a little, talks like a self-congratulatory, self-lacerating gush of sound and fury in the form of words, and is giving a lecture.
We are not in a theater. It is a lecture hall. Lecterns are poised, flags are furled, and introducers are introducing in a flurry of barely read notes.
The lecture is being sponsored by some organization more pleased with itself than it has any good right to be. This is its 231st lecture in its age-long series of "Man on Man." The most distinguished lecture bums on the circuit, from Herbert Hoover to Dylan Thomas, have somehow clambered to its podium.
And once there, have - in the words of the Madame Chairman - looked at the audience and "wreaked their order on our havoc."
And now it is Drivas' turn, and, make no mistake about it, Albee's. Two men - freaks of nature, monstrosities of circumstance - who once happened to have three arms. And got famous through it.
It is a freefall of writing, some of it remarkably good, all of it dangerously unedited, and most of it sadly bitter. Bitter? Yes, because the fame that Albee is really writing about - and he can hint at Presley, or he can make generic equations to his justifiably embittered heart's content - is his own. And the strange envy of people for it.
Albee is abrasive. Albee is arrogant. Albee also has some rights as one of the major playwrights of our time - and one of the most cheerfully self-destructive. I think I used "self," tactfully hyphenated in that literary fashion that Albee understands so well, four times. Maybe five. This play - as he tells us - is concerned with a "sense of self."
Albee's hero, despite his hectoring style, is desperately concerned to distinguish between "self-disgust and disgust at others." But he sees himself not only as "an exceptional man" but also a "freak." And a drunken priest at a party once told him: "You were an accident of nature!"
In one painfully revealing passage - when the hero was told about the way his third arm sprouted, the event "that changed my life and all my definitions," he exclaims with marked poignancy: "You want the climax at the beginning - a life of detumescence."
An ugly image perhaps, but surely a heartfelt one coming from an author who, more than most of his generation, has known the slings and arrows of outrageously fortunate early success.
For here the hero loses his instant fame - his third arm withers, and goes away as mysteriously as it arrived. His entrepreneur, a wily Southern Colonel, disappears at the same time, taking with him most of the money that came from this freak notoriety. The gig was up - our hero became overnight a former celebrity - a man who once happened to have had three arms.
The play is not quite a monologue - but comes close to it. Albee tries to open it up a little; the two representatives of this crazy lecture-cum-picnic society who make the introductions - William Prince and Patricia Kilgarrif - also play out little illustrative cameos with Drivas, so, at one point, for example, Miss Kilgarrif might impersonate the hero's wife, or Prince would assume the role of the aforementioned priest.
Both are fine - but the driving force of the play, which has been staged by Albee, is clearly Drivas, and his manic, antic impersonation of Albee's hero.
It is a brilliantly edgy performance, highly convincing, virtuosic in its sustained intensity, and oddly identified with the role. Partly because of the unique, even cranky construction, Drivas has to convince us as much as a character as an actor.
In the final test - does Albee's play work? Well, I cannot see it being often revived; and it is, if you take my meaning, more theatrical than theater, more dramatic than drama. With that proviso let me stress that it is surprisingly worth seeing - the words sizzle and the ideas sear. Albee may not be writing a play as such - but he is certainly cooking.
Edward Albee's ''Man Who Had Three Arms,'' at the Lyceum, isn't a play - it's a temper tantrum in two acts. A celebrated man known only as Himself - why is it always so hard for Mr. Albee to give people proper names? - stands at a lecture-hall podium, backed by potted plants and flags, and spends nearly two hours alternately insulting the audience and announcing how bitter he is.
This static premise is not, per se, a hopeless idea for theater: if Mr. Albee were inclined to be ruthlessly honest, he might have written a work as excoriating and funny as a Lenny Bruce routine. But the bitterness that pours out of Himself is a mixture of unearned self-pity and abject rancor. ''The Man Who Had Three Arms'' arouses roughly the same emotions as those People magazine cover stories in which movie stars grouse about how hard it is to escape grasping fans while shopping in Beverly Hills.
Himself, played by Robert Drivas, is mad because he was once ''the most famous man in the world'' and now he isn't so famous anymore. A standard-cut advertising man with a wife and three kids, he had one day awakened to discover that he was growing a third arm on his back. Suddenly Himself was sought after by royalty, cheered by ticker-tape parades and toasted by talk-show hosts. He had become, one might say, a contemporary Elephant Man - complete with trunk.
But when we meet Himself, the parade has passed by. The third arm ultimately withered away, and so did the protagonist's celebrity and fortune. While he used to command $25,000 for a personal appearance, he now speaks for ''half a grand and a toddle or two of gin.'' In the lecture we see, Himself is a last-minute replacement for a more-famous speaker who has died. Drunk and in debt, he's now just another ordinary-looking man at the end of his rope.
One of the more shocking lapses of Mr. Albee's writing is that he makes almost no attempt even to pretend that Himself is anything other than a maudlin stand-in for himself, with the disappearing arm representing an atrophied talent. Though the speaker tells us about his family and advertising career, we never believe in these fictional biographical details for a second. They're thrown in without specificity or conviction, and, before long, they're forgotten as Himself lashes out against drama critics, speaks in the same overripe language as past Albee narrators and starts wrapping himself in the cloaks of such literary men as Agee, Melville and Nabokov.
But whoever Himself is - whether a one-time freak or a playwright in mid-career crisis - his beefs with the world are shrill and unmoving, no matter how much the author tries to inflate them into an indictment of ''the American dream.'' It's hard to feel much sympathy for a man who, by his own account, greedily helped himself to the perks of fame - unlimited publicity, power, money and sex - and now complains that the adulation was ''idiotic,'' that the power was short-lived, that the fortune was recklessly squandered, and that the sex was empty. Himself even gives us endless tirades about the food on the lecture circuit, as if his lucrative speaking engagements were a mandatory jail sentence rather than an easy, voluntary way to make lots of money for little work.
Thrown into this mix is a virulent and gratuitous misogyny that has little relevance to the character at hand but is totally of a piece with the last Albee play, ''Lolita'': ''baggage'' is easily the nicest term by which Himself refers to women. Indeed, the only person not treated contemptuously during the monologue is the speaker, who frequently likens his martyrdom to Christ's.
Whatever one thinks of the content of ''The Man Who Had Three Arms,'' the craftsmanship is rudimentary. Act I is all throatclearing and padding. The sequences in which two other actors, William Prince and Patricia Kilgarriff, impersonate figures from the protagonist's past - doctors, parents, a Catholic priest - are so perfunctory they might as well be part of the crude slide show Himself sporadically uses to illustrate his lecture. The jokes include many wordplays on the hero's former appendage - ''arm in arm in arm'' and so on - and canned wisecracks about the press.
Under the author's direction, the tireless Mr. Drivas is reasonably successful at accomplishing the play's stated aim - to whip Himself and the audience ''into mutual rage and revulsion.'' But only at the end does the anger come to a point. It's then that Mr. Albee at last begins to deal seriously with the issue his play wants to be about - an inability, as Himself puts it, ''to distinguish between my self-disgust and my disgust with others.'' As the curtain falls, the sobbing Mr. Drivas falls to his knees, torn between asking the despised audience to leave and begging it to stay.
It's a painful, if embarrassing, spectacle, because it shows us the real and sad confusion that exists somewhere beneath the narcissistic arrogance and bile that the author uses as a dodge to avoid introspection the rest of the time. While ''The Man Who Had Three Arms'' is mostly an act of self-immolation, its final display of self-revelation holds out at least the slender hope that Mr. Albee might yet pick himself up from the floor.