The Lady From Dubuque is neither Edward Albee's best nor his best-known play, but it is one of his strangest, and that designation has not changed one bit in the 32 years between its critically panned first production and this, its first major revival. It's two hours of intentional discomfort spewed out of some dark and recondite corner of Albee's mind, adorned in a grim irony. And it makes about as much sense as it does excuses. But the production is also absolutely riveting, which is the right word because it indeed feels like someone has affixed your body to your chair with a pneumatic gun.
The play's strangeness runs to its very structure. The star of the show, a resplendently menacing Elizabeth (Jane Alexander), doesn't put in an appearance until the very end of the first act, signaling a hard left turn that even Dale Earnhardt Jr. would find daunting. Up until this point, Albee builds his story in familiar territory, a sloshingly sarcastic dinner party not unlike the one in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The hostess is not humped, but the host is humiliated and the guests gotten. They even begin with a game: Twenty-One Questions, though, by the end of the play, there will have been many more asked, if not answered. Most of the questioning is done by Sam (Michael Hayden), who along with his dying wife, Jo (Laila Robins), inhabits the spacious, modern home to which they have invited what one might philanthropically call their ''friends.'' These include neighbors Edgar and Lucinda (Thomas Jay Ryan and Catherin Curtin), their bigoted, alpha-male buddy Fred (C. J. Wilson), and his apparently ditzy moll, Carol (Tricia Paoluccio).
As the night wears on, so does their patience. Soon, they're at each other's throats in a crossfire of undercutting and backhanded compliments. Jo, finding excuse in her terminal illness, is the chief broker of scorn, viciously slicing her husband and guests to ribbons without ever rising from her Eames chair. And though the furniture is functional, the language is anything but. Albee has an almost Beckettian knack for squeezing a word between his thumb and forefinger until it renders up all possible meaning, and his turns of phrase tend to spin a few extra times before coming to a rest. There's a particular nasty elegance to his back-and-forths that comes especially alive under David Esbjornson's direction.
Then enters the lady, and after her, the deluge. When the second half begins, the narrative pivot is immediately obvious. It is the next morning and Sam descends the stairs in his sleepwear to find Alexander's aloofly patrician Elizabeth and her refined but sardonic companion, Oscar (Peter Francis James, who practically licks his lips while delivering some of Albee's most excellent deprecatory lines). The lady claims she is Jo's mother, a notion that Sam rejects and, just like that, these two take on the roles of a pair of Pinteresque interlopers, refusing steadfastly to leave but never stating it quite so uncouthly.
At its core, The Lady From Dubuque is about acceptance. Both Sam and Jo are forced to accept an unacceptable fact, one about the lady's identity, the other about her own mortality in the end, they are essentially the same thing. Dubuque is also a work full of violence, only some of which is physical. The characters are consistently jockeying for position in their zero-sum social games, whipping each other's wounds with their tongues. The only respite from the callous verbosity comes when the ailing Jo breaks down and let loose a racking scream of pain that silences the entire room. Honestly, it's almost a perfect wordless précis for the whole play: a raw, primal howl into the dark. A-
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)