The device called deus ex machina -- literally, "god from the machine" -- originated with the ancient Greeks at the start of theatre's evolution and was used to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts or situations. How ironic that Edward Albee, in his 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape, now in a visually and intellectually arresting revival from Lincoln Center Theater, employs a deus ex machina straight out of evolutionism.
Here the conflict involves a long-married, now-retired couple: plucky Nancy (Frances Sternhagen) and cranky Charlie (George Grizzard). She's unimpressed by her life painting watercolors from atop high sand dunes and infuriated by the idea that "the earth's spinning in its own fashion without any push" from either of them. Charlie is no help: He's content to sun himself and doze, wrestle with crossword puzzles, and avoid recalling yesterday's dreams gone by.
While they first appear as a pair who'd always envisioned their own retirement, they each quickly learn how out of lockstep they are. Desperation descends: Nancy implores Charlie to revisit his youth -- to clutch two large stones and sink to the bottom of the sea, to again hold his breath and commune with the underwater fauna. He won't, she won't stop imploring him, and their dreamy retirement seems poised for perpetual dissension.
The startling appearance of two lizards, Leslie (the superb Frederick Weller) and Sarah (the winsome Elizabeth Marvel), is the deus ex machina that catalyzes the scene. Like the Greeks, who knew gods might drop in at any point, we know something's coming -- Nancy repeatedly sees two figures sunning themselves in the distance. Still, when these gorgeously green creatures appear on Michael Yeargan's sand-swept set, cloaked in the scaly armor of Catherine Zuber's magnificent costumes, what was once a septuagenarian squabble spins spectacularly into the absurd.
To what end? That's the question, as it was in 1975. Director Mark Lamos, whose spare staging has allowed him to spend more time eliciting nuanced performances, does much heavy lifting: Weller and Marvel are not cold-blooded caricatures but fully conceived characters, if earlier on the evolutionary scale. They are what Albee likely wants them to be: an interspecies mirror for Nancy and Charlie, a way to force them -- and us -- to recalibrate ideas of what love is and what is fundamental about living and coupling.
Weller and Marvel, who slither and seethe with amphibious grace, find galvanizing counterparts in legendary actors Sternhagen and Grizzard. She has the harder job: During Act I, her hatred of the rocking-chair life is rendered through Albee's exquisite if elliptical language. Grizzard's challenge is to burrow underneath Charlie's underwritten character: We never learn why he won't revisit the sea bottom. For him, donning a gruff, bearlike exterior is the right choice, for under it we see -- just as we'd see under the sea -- the potential for life, for evolution. As the lizards indirectly make clear, even recognizing that potential is better for mankind than a regression into the primordial ooze.
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Nov. 21-Jan. 8. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (No performances Thu., Nov. 24, and Sun., Dec. 25.)(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250. Casting by Daniel Swee.