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Satiric allegory from Edward Albee; The Man Who Had Three Arms Play by Edward Albee. Directed by Mr. Albee.

By John Beaufort / April 14, 1983



New York

Edward Albee is a practiced hand at the uses of fantasy and the surreal, the bizarre and grotesque. In ''The Man Who Had Three Arms,'' Mr. Albee employs the faculty to create an allegory in the form of an autobiographical reminiscence by an erstwhile freak. In a bitterly satiric lecture and slide show, a character identified only as Himself reveals himself.

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The Albee device of a lecture-within-a-lecture permits Himself (Robert Drivas) to hold center stage continuously as he expands upon his weird ordeal - a short-lived celebrity when he grows the third arm and the disaster that follows the disappearance of the temporary limb. The device enables the playwright to attack a whole range of targets: from women journalists to interviewers generally, from critics and megabuck promoters to the priesthood.

The smell of success turns rancid as Himself delivers the mocking, anguished, sometimes ribald, and sometimes disgusting account of how a moderately successful advertising man became a seven-day international sensation. The discourse touches in passing on such subjects as parent-child relationships (''the shortest distance between two generations is not a straight line''), voyeurism, and ''the Anglo Saxon Protestant American Dream.'' In this black comedy of dark thoughts and sardonic humor, Himself leaves no stone unturned and (to borrow a phrase) no turn unstoned.

''The Man Who Had Three Arms'' could well be the bitter complaint of a playwright whose earlier great success has been followed by a wounding decline in popular and critical response. In this respect, the play is a sad spectacle. Yet it offers passages of eloquence and emotional power. Furthermore, in attacking the world, Himself has been well armed with the Albee arsenal of articulate attack weapons.

Mr. Drivas achieves a tour de force in the dominant role, dedicating his histrionic skill and energy to the often savage recital delivered before what Mr. Albee pretends is a typical lecture audience. In the cast directed by the author, Williams Prince and Patricia Kilgarriff give reliable performances, first as a pair of comic introducers and intermittently thereafter as necessary incidental characters. John Jensen (scenery and projections), John Falabella (costumes), and Jeff Davis (lighting) provide the visual necessaries for Himself's illustrated harangue.