ONSTAGE Sparkling white sands spilling over the stage. Tufts of spindly sea grass. The sound of waves breaking gently in the distance, accompanied by a faint chorus of gulls. Even before the curtain goes up on Edward Albee’s Seascape at ACT’s Geary Theater (through February 17), you are at once transported to the seaside.

And when it does go up, the sands seem to go on forever in a stretch of dunes and breakers, a setting so serene that you don’t even question Nancy’s (Ellen McLaughlin) desire to stay there forever. Nancy’s rhapsodizing about roaming beaches from Hawaii to Bali is addressed to her husband Charlie (James Carpenter) who is lolling on a blanket under the dunes, next to a picnic basket, a bottle of wine and a couple of pillows.

Charlie doesn’t want to travel the world’s beaches, in fact, he says, he just wants to do nothing.

Perturbed by his response, Nancy goes on at length about her desire to travel the globe, and why this is the right time of their life—retirement, empty nest—to take this adventure. “We are not going to be around forever, Charlie, and you may not do nothing!” Nancy insists. Her voice is so mellifluous and her travel plan so inviting that Charlie seems even more of a curmudgeon for refusing her.

Playwright Albee’s uncanny ear for relationship dialog—just the right combination of tender persuasion, gentle digs, reluctant agreements, and threats of separation—is at perfect pitch in this engaging first act. His Pulitzer-Prize wining drama is in the adept hands of director Pam MacKinnon, who has directed a dozen Albee plays since first collaborating with him in 2002. She won a Tony for directing his iconic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway. It’s no wonder she chose an Albee play for her debut as a director since taking the helm as Artistic Director of ACT.

The brilliant set design by David Zinn (who also designed the costumes) is enhanced by Isabella Byrds’s skill in capturing that rare light of the Atlantic sea coast. Brendan James’ sound design includes the varied calls of seagulls and the annoying roar of airplanes passing overhead.

But at the end of Act I, it seems that Albee’s penchant for domestic dialogue is going to be upended. Frustrated by her husband’s lack of curiosity, Nancy, barefoot and in cut-off jeans, climbs to the top of the dunes. She spies two figures on the beach who seem to be coming out from a swim.

Moments later those figures silently slither along the dunes: They are giant green lizards, complete with long tails. When they see the human couple, the larger of the two picks up a huge branch. Alarmed, Nancy instructs Charlie to lie on his back with his feet and arms up—in a gesture of submission—and smile!

But the lizards, who introduce themselves with the rather prosaic names of Leslie (Seann Gallagher) and Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) turn out to be fully capable of engaging in Albee’s famous relationship talk, including “Yes, dear” marital moments of their own. Not only that, they chat in English while being completely convincing as lizards, with just the right twitch of the neck and planting of the padded feet. Gallagher and Hayon fully inhabit their lizard bodies, aided by scaly green costumes by Zinn and reptilian movement coaching by Danyon Davis.

While the males circle warily around each other, Nancy and Sarah find common bonds, talking about children, mammary glands and other body parts. Sarah is intrigued by Nancy’s breasts and the human handshake. McLaughlin shines with a lively pantomime as she tries to explain the concept of human emotions to the uncomprehending Sarah.

As the younger and older couples get to know each other, it almost seems like an absurdist version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Ellen McLaughlin and James Carpenter in ‘Seascape.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Tenuously, they explore each other, and find they have some things in common: Nancy’s desire to leave their current life and explore the world is echoed in Sarah’s reasons for emerging from the primordial soup to see a different way of living. Leslie asserts they simply left their sea environment because he didn’t like being surrounded by fish. His assertion that “fish are stupid” offends Charlie who earlier had relished his childhood memories of sitting on the bottom of the sea and wishing he were a fish.

Despite their commonalities, the couples have a hard time understanding each other. Sarah wants to know how a human couple can have only three children, instead of thousands: “What if they float away?” she asks bewildered. Charlie insists on knowing why the lizards came up out of the sea, seeing another iteration of evolution. “And do you know what happened once, kind of the crowning moment for me? It was when some slimy creature poked his head out of the muck, looked around and decided to spend some time up here.” Leslie is confused. “Is that what we did?”

When the talk devolves into abstractions, the wit and warmth of the dialogue seems trail off into non sequitors. There are moments when even the characters seem to lose interest in the huge questions at hand. But when the foursome gets back to recognizing and embracing their relationships, the sparkle returns.

“Art is not pacification,” Albee wrote. “It’s a disturbance.”

What could be more disturbing than accepting that prehistoric lizards face the same dilemmas as we humans? Disturbing, but in the hands of MacKinnon and this marvelous cast, it’s also a wonderful way to spend an afternoon on a beach.

SEASCAPE
Through Feb 17
ACT Geary Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here.