It's unusual for a playwright to write an adaptation of a contemporary play by another playwright, particularly when the adaptation and the original are in the same language. But that's what Edward Albee did in 1967 when he reworked -- and retained the title of -- British writer Giles Cooper's suburban satire, "Everything in the Garden."
Although Albee's latest play, "Three Tall Women," has received a better reception in New York than anything else he has done in years, his adaptations have never been considered his best work -- even at his peak of popularity. Avalon Theater Company's production of "Everything in the Garden" doesn't do much to contradict that opinion.
However, this two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is an important enough figure in American theater to make even his more obscure plays worth consideration.
Because "Everything in the Garden" includes themes that also surface in some of Albee's original work -- the internecine warfare of married life, the hypocrisies of suburbia -- it's easy to understand why Cooper's script appealed to him.
The play focuses on a husband and wife living beyond their means in a New York suburb. Richard refuses to allow his wife, Jenny, to take a job. But then a mysterious, prim-and-proper-seeming British lady offers Jenny a proposition she can't refuse. All she has to do is break her word to her husband -- as well as her marriage vows -- by spending a few afternoons a week discretely "entertaining" male clients. Jenny has some initial qualms, but she quickly overcomes them.
In the second act, after their financial situation has improved, Jenny and Richard give a party for the snooty friends with whom they've been struggling to compete. In a plot twist that could be described as a combination of "The Mayflower Madam" and "The Stepford Wives," Jenny discovers she and the wives at the party have a great deal in common.
The play's most interesting character is the couple's multi-millionaire friend, Jack, who repeatedly breaks the naturalistic format by addressing the audience directly. As Jack, Charles W. Maloney also delivers the production's slickest performance -- a blend of gentlemanly charm and "Twilight Zone" surrealism.
Under Susan Weber's direction, there's a slight cartoon aura to Christy Brooks' wide-eyed Jenny and Edward Kuhl's Richard, who spends most of the second act with his jaw hanging open in shock. A cartoon style can heighten Albee's brand of satire, as Impossible Industrial Action's production of his "American Dream" proved last season; but it works only if it is bolder than life instead of merely hammier.
In the end, however, the difficulty lies more with the play than the production. "Everything in the Garden" includes some typical Albee themes, but it lacks the symbolism, passion and bite that characterize many of his more successful works. Fans of the playwright -- who led workshops at Johns Hopkins University for five years in the 1980s -- may find Avalon's production an interesting exercise, but it is little more than that.
"Everything in the Garden"
Where: Avalon Theater Company, Catonsville Recreation Center, 106 Bloomsbury Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. April 17. Through April 17
Call: (410) 744-4964