Lurking underneath the neat one-liners and slapstick routines of Simon David Eden’s seemingly nostalgic swansong to a fading America is more a equivocal presentation of the organising principles of American society.
The Albatross 3rd & Main is set over the course of a day in a rundown, all-American general store. Although references to call centres quickly confirm that this is the modern day, there’s not much in Eden’s beautifully detailed set that gives this away. We meet Gene, the debt-riddled proprietor of the shop; Lullaby, both a gentle giant and an ex-boxer; and Spider, a cliché-spouting, leather-clad chancer. Midway into the first act, Spider produces the dead eagle that we have been waiting for the men to discover. The national bird is, Spider informs them, very valuable. But harbouring the carcass is a felony. Spider hatches a plan to sell the bird to the local Native American reservation, who, owing to a questionable quirk of US legislation, aren’t allowed to be in possession of the eagle feathers required for traditional spiritual ceremonies. The scheme inevitably goes wrong.
The production is, as others have noted, slick and the performances are accomplished. But whilst the second act escalates into a violent comedy, à la Martin McDonagh, it just wasn’t that funny. So while others laughed at the appropriate moments, I found myself unpacking the play’s myriad animal allegories, metaphors, and maxims in search of its theoretical underpinning.
Lullaby is important. It’s always the quiet ones. At what must nearly be 7-foot, Andrew St Clair-James looms over the other characters who wrongly assume Lullaby to be unintelligent. In fact, somewhat predictably, he is the most well read of the three. Throughout, he references periodicals and recites lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – the poem that spawned the albatross metaphor Eden is hinting at. As the production continues, the poem encroaches. At one point, both Gene and Lullaby eerily chant verses over Spider: ‘He loved the bird that loved the man / Who shot him with his bow.’ In the poem, the innocent albatross loved the mariner who shot him. In the play, Gene has grown attached to the burden of the shop (read: commerce/capitalism). ‘What is that called?’ asks Spider, ‘Stockhausen syndrome?’ ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’ Lullaby corrects him.
As fear sets in amongst the characters, divisions and temporary allegiances appear. Spider – who takes all of his advice from animal-themed adages such as ‘if you swim with sharks…’ – buys a gun. It is the firearm that is largely to blame for the escalated drama of the second act. I am reminded of an earlier scene in which Gene, quoting George Washington, recognises that man has only the ‘illusion of an imaginary common interest’. The notion of the collective good is only carted out when it’s convenient to sacrifice someone in its service. ‘No sense in us all going down,’ says Spider.
It’s all very The Lord of the Flies. Humans prove more barbaric than animals. Whilst there is a vicious raccoon, Lullaby points out that ants are a superorganism capable of farming aphids and of identifying as part of a harmonious collective. After a year like 2016, I am more than happy to try taking advice from ants. I’m not sure if this is in fact what Eden is positing. He is certainly ambivalent about the supremacy of the American dream: a repackaged Darwinian dream of the survival of the fittest. Or, as Spider would say: a dog eat dog world. But the ideas are not as neat as the one-liners and too often they distract from the characters on stage.
The Albatross 3rd & Main is on at the Park Theatre until 4th February 2017. Click here for more details.