Albee Smiles, with Egg on His Face
Edward Albee is smiling in his grave. He is thinking to himself “You see, they will never forget me, but they also will never surpass me.” He is thinking about the new film, Egg, directed by Marianna Palka and written by Risa Mickenberg, which recently premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2018. Albee was notoriously (and aggressively) protective of his work. He didn’t like directors inserting their own ideas into his carefully crafted dialogue or layering their notions on top of his brilliantly depicted themes.
“Egg matches Albee and raises him one.”
But still, I think Albee might be pleased with this new movie, which is very much an homage to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1966, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and selected in 2013 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”). Egg gives that now-classic play a fresh “reimagining” (as the young people say) for modern times and modern relationships between men and women. Yes, Albee was modern back in 1962, but today, more than 50 years later, there is a new modern.
Some things never change – such as the complexities of romantic/sexual relationships and the dangerous emotional games that couples play. And if one is going to delve into that territory with any seriousness (or any sharply incisive satire), one cannot ignore Albee. And Palka and Mickenberg model their film after his in just the right ways and go their own way on just the right issues. And yes, I mean issues; this is a movie that significantly examines real-life, relevant issues, such as pregnancy, abortion, child-birth, adoption, surrogate mothers, and parenting; it’s not just a drama. Reinforcing this Albee comparison even further is the fact that Virginia Woolf also did touch on the subject of pregnancy and dead babies, but it kept the discussion mysterious. Perhaps it was just too socially unacceptable to bring those subjects into full view back in ’62, but Egg goes all in; in this way at least, Egg matches Albee and raises him one, bringing maternal and women’s issues out of the shadows. (Insert your own joke about needing to crack some eggs to make an omelet.)
Albee is known to have said that he wanted his plays to be “useful, not merely decorative.” That is one reason he might appreciate Egg, which manages to use Albee’s magnificent plot structure and style as an arena for a more candid discussion of bigger issues than he was able to debate.
It’s interesting to note that Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963, and it was also selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama by that year’s jury. However, the award’s advisory board – the trustees of Columbia University – objected to the play’s then-controversial use of profanity and sexual themes, and overruled the jury, awarding NO Pulitzer Prize for Drama at all in 1963. Ridiculous! You see – there really is a new modern in today’s day.
Egg is a provocative and unflinching look at two couples and a surrogate; it lays bare the complications, contradictions, heartbreak, and absurdities implicit in how we think about motherhood (and sexuality). It contains a virile dose of Virginia-esque viciousness, but not a memorable amount of obscenity, at least by today’s standards. If weighed on a balance scale, Egg would teeter between bitterness and hopefulness, whereas that Pulitzer committee might say Woolf balanced bitterness only with drunkenness. Yes, there is drunkenness in Egg as well. And – no worries – it will never come close to being considered for a Pulitzer, but it is definitely worth your watching it.
One way in which the Palka-Mickenberg team prove their true understanding of the depth of Albee, is that, despite all the nastiness and cutting dialogue, you see in this film, as you do in his play, an immense sympathy for the characters. They may or may not truly love each other, but the filmmakers love them, and you will feel a connection to them too – each of them in their very different ways. There was more than one moment when I felt pride when a character stood up and defended, and then other moments when I felt hurt when another character was insulted or rejected, and those moments were not the ones I might have expected. You also may have your assumed allegiances challenged. These characters are each strong and weak and funny and angry and relatable. Many films at Tribeca are wonderful for the way they take you into entirely new worlds and expose you to the great unknown. This film is wonderful for the way it takes you into yourself and exposes you to your own contradictions and emotions.
Tina (Alysia Reiner) and Karen (Christina Hendricks) were art school frenemies whose paths diverged after college. Tina became a passionate, successful conceptual artist, while Karen sacrificed a career in art in order to become a wife and mother. When Karen—eight months pregnant—and her wealthy husband, Don, make a trip to New York City, Tina and her partner Wayne invite the couple over to their bohemian loft for dinner. Things quickly move from awkward to explosive when Tina announces her newest art project – a study of mothers and babies, which has already been commissioned by the prestigious New Museum in New York, and the core of that artistic work will be a real-life performance piece in which Tina and Wayne become parents via surrogate. Stoking the fire, Tina and Wayne’s young, beautiful surrogate Kiki (Anna Camp) drops by unexpectedly, and the five-some spend the rest of the evening quarrelling about the pressures of motherhood – why and how we choose it, revere it, and sometimes forgo it.
“Egg has its own ways of winning and losing.”
But let’s not forget about relationships. Motherhood fuels this fire, but the flames crackle with tension between man and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, married man and woman-on-the-side, egg-mother and surrogate-mother, and also between girlfriends. This is truly the way in which Egg differentiates itself from Woolf; the dynamics here give dimension to the new complexities and questions of today’s modern American society. People still struggle with reality vs illusion, but what we wish for, what we cherish as memories, and the ways in which we choose to delude ourselves, are in many ways unique to our times. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf stands as an opponent of the idea of a perfect American family and societal expectations, as it attacks the false optimism and myopic confidence of modern society in 1962. And Egg stands as an opponent of the idea of a perfect American family and societal expectations, as it attacks the false optimism and myopic confidence of modern society in 2018. And they are two very different movies.
Egg takes much of its sturdy three-act structure from Virginia Woolf as well, and it paces itself perfectly, as cracks in relationships reveal themselves, danger intensifies, and allegiances shift. But these relationships are in no way copies of Albee’s. In fact, much has been made of the way in which Albee seemed to portray George as weak and bullied by Martha, but in the end… he’s the last man standing. I will not reveal who is the last person standing in Egg, but it did manage to surprise me. It will leave you contemplating. Beyond all the ways in which this film parallels Albee’s classic tale, Egg is its own story, and it has its own power struggles and its own ways of winning and losing.