The party game at the start asks revelers to guess "Who am I?" Later that night, the question turns to "Who is she?" But there isn't a moment in the Signature Theatre Company's unflinching, riveting reclamation of "The Lady From Dubuque" when the master in charge could be anyone but Edward Albee.
As it turns out, the drama, mostly dismissed as a footnote after the 12-performance flop on Broadway in 1980, belongs near the top shelf in the playwright's lifelong explorations of grown-up, hyper-articulate emotional terrorism. Audiences will recognize the get-the-guest cruelty from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," the amorphous mortal panic in "A Delicate Balance," the unsentimental death watch from "All Over."
Nobody does the abyss like Albee and, in this one, death is as straightforward and real as the agonized wailing that Jo, the party's cancer-ravaged hostess, can no longer disguise with brutal cleverness or knowing asides to the audience. Laila Robins, scary-good in the revival of Albee's "Tiny Alice," manages to be both exquisite and devastated -- luscious and emaciated -- as dying transforms her into a being strangely devoid of need.
If the first act seems almost too literal and a bit glib, the dark mysteries of life stroll in before intermission in the chiffon-dripping presence of the so-called lady from Dubuque. Portrayed with formidable elegance by Jane Alexander, this lady -- named after a disparaging anti-populist comment made in 1925 by the founder of The New Yorker -- claims to be Jo's estranged mother.
Her companion is a suave, black stranger -- the squeaky dry and delightful Peter Francis James -- who joins her in the playful menace of ambiguity. And, suddenly, we see the connection between these sophisticated late-life strangers and the couple that upsets the innocence of new parents in Albee's thrilling, troublemaking vaudeville from 2001, "The Play About the Baby."
David Esbjornson, director of both plays and Albee's "The Goat," clearly gets the playwright's merciless intelligence and his wild, unexpectedly compassionate heart. The cast has a fine way with curdled civility on designer John Arnone's airy sweep of suburban domesticity.
Ultimately the person with whom we hurt is Jo's husband, beautifully portrayed with a souring all-American helplessness by Michael Hayden, the lost one left behind. How good that this play has been found.
WHAT "Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque"
WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org