Playwright Edward Albee celebrates his 80th year

[14 November 2007]

By Linda Winer

Newsday (MCT)

MONTAUK, N.Y.—It is a scene a great playwright might imagine, then discard as too obvious.

Edward Albee sits at a table in the pool house of his compound at the very end of the world on Old Montauk Highway. The ocean twinkles behind him. A large swimming pool glistens beyond. Over his shoulder, on a slope overlooking the sea, a friend digs a tiny grave for the afternoon funeral of Snow, 23, his cat.

THE ESSENTIAL ALBEE Twenty-seven scripts, written from 1958-2003, are available in “The Collected Plays of Edward Albee,” a three-volume set published by Overlook Duckworth. For a less daunting place to start, try the following: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Tony Award, 1962-63)—This articulate monster of a masterwork eviscerates a marriage as vast and as vulgar as the curdling Cold War American dream. “A Delicate Balance” (Pulitzer Prize, 1967)—An exquisitely modern psycho-social dance about the fallout when neighbors move into their friends’ rich-suburban house because they are suddenly and mysteriously frightened. Spectacularly verbal characters grapple with the loneliness of intimacy and the terror of whatever plague will inevitably take us all. “Three Tall Women” (Pulitzer Prize, 1994)—Three characters play three women of varying ages who appear to be preparing for the death of the eldest: the tall, difficult, patrician woman based on Albee’s conflicted but compassionate memories of his estranged adoptive mother. “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” (Tony Award, 2001-2002)—This primal scream of a family drama involves a celebrated married architect who falls—sincerely and obsessively and catastrophically—in love with a goat. In a modern Greek tragedy, Albee dares to explore the involuntary power of passions that can’t always be kept within the boundary lines. “Edward Albee: A Singular Journey” (1999, Simon & Schuster)—Critic Mel Gussow, who died of cancer in 2005, worked closely with the playwright for this lively, meticulous, invaluable biography. Heretofore a notoriously private artist, Albee says, “It was getting to the point that I knew somebody was going to start writing one. So I decided to do something sensible and get the truth out there before somebody can do slander.”

“She is now residing in the freezer in the downstairs icebox,” he says with an unflinching directness that must never be mistaken for a lack of emotion. “She had several cancer operations and they kept saying she won’t survive this one, but she did. I put her in plastic and forgot to tell the cleaning ladies. One of them went in there, saw a dead cat and, well ...”

It might seem that Albee, who began his astounding 80th-birthday season Sunday night with the first of at least four major productions, has mortality on his mind. But then again, he always has. Ever since he broke into theater history almost 50 years ago with “The Zoo Story,” the American master with the three Pulitzer prizes and the three Tony awards (including one for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) has been throwing the abyss in our faces with exhilarating, articulate daring and dark, grown-up dazzle.

“Peter and Jerry,” which opened Sunday night at Second Stage, is a double bill featuring “Zoo Story” and its prequel (a word he hates) called “Homelife.” In January, “Me, Myself and I,” a comedy about identical twin brothers, will have its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., before a probable transfer.

Two months later, in time for his March 12 birthday, he directs revivals of “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox” at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where these seminal works first disrupted Greenwich Village in the early `60s. And “Occupant,” the portrait of the late sculptor Louise Nevelson originally written in 2002 for Anne Bancroft before she died, finally opens, starring Mercedes Ruehl, at the Signature Theatre Company in May.

“I’ll tell you what I feel apprehensive and silly about,” he says. “I hope nobody comes up with the idiotic notion that these productions were my idea. It didn’t even occur to me that I’m going to be 80. I don’t think in those terms.”

In fact, despite the accumulation of lifetime achievement awards, and the industrial-sized hearing aids (tiny ones are mere “vanity”) and the recent cataract surgeries, he insists, “I still think I’m 15 most of the time. I go to the gym four days a week and ride bikes. I used to smoke and I used to drink and I stopped both of those around 30 years ago. I have problems—I have diabetes and a couple of stents in my heart and stuff like that ... but I take 30 pills a day to keep everything functioning just fine. I seem to have far more energy than most people at that awful phrase, my age.”

Here it all is. The vitality, the wit and a purposeful crankiness that, though one can’t say it has mellowed, may be almost as endearing as it is intimidating these days.

Albee, unlike Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, has defied the “there-are-no-second-acts” curse that haunts the American theater.

More to the point, Albee is having a blazing third act. That second one, however, was not so happy. From the noisy Broadway failure of “The Man Who Had Three Arms” in 1983 until the vindicating Pulitzer for “Three Tall Women” in 1994, his work was unofficially banished from New York.

He continued to have productions in Europe and in regional theater. But this singular voice, whose first act included four Tony nominations in the years between “Virginia Woolf” in 1962 and “A Delicate Balance” in 1966, had been dismissed along with the “Man Who Had Three Arms”—a tale of a man who inexplicably grew an extra arm, got famous for it and lost all when it inexplicably shriveled away.

“I don’t carry grudges,” he says, still annoyed that most critics thought the play was autobiographical and not, as it was, a prescient indictment of celebrity. “I never forgive, but I don’t believe in letting stuff get at me. I started getting lousy reviews after I decided not to write `Son of Virginia Woolf II.’ I knew the plays I was writing weren’t bad, that something else was being criticized. So I shrugged and went about my business. You can’t let them make you a victim, they can’t make you afraid of yourself.”

“Virginia Woolf,” his most famous title, came with its own bloodletting. Although the Pulitzer jury voted it the prize, the board—reportedly shocked by the language and the bitter candor—overturned the decision and gave no drama award that year.

But the smashing success did buy him this exquisite three-house estate, hidden from the road, filled with contemporary art, most by accomplished friends. He also keeps an apartment in downtown Manhattan, but he calls this “heaven. This is where I do an awful lot of work.

“It must have been 1960 when I first came out here,” he recalls. “I didn’t even have a driver’s license. We came out to persuade Uta Hagen, who lived here (in Montauk), to play Martha”—academic’s wife and supreme emotional terrorist. “I played George, George Grizzard played Nick, I can’t remember who was Honey.

“There was no big highway then. I could see the ocean and the hills and, once Uta decided to do the play and we were in rehearsal, I called up the rental agent and said, `I’ve got to live out here.’ This place had just come up for sale. I think it was $40,000, which I didn’t have, and I said, `Yeah, sure I’ll buy it. Four-and-a-half acres.’ I’ve lived here ever since.”

He also bought a couple of barns on another 4 ½ acres nearby, where he has overseen the Edward F. Albee Foundation—a summer colony for painters, sculptors and writers—for the past 40 years.

For all his reputed toughness, he is known in the theater for being extraordinarily generous to young talent. He judges competitions (including Newsday’s Oppenheimer Award for first plays in New York) and he taught playwrights for 15 years at the University of Houston. “I just want to see good plays and I want other people to see good plays. I don’t think they should be learning about theater from all the crap that gets put out.”

He says he believes that too many readings and workshops for new plays are “doing serious damage ... They’re for ironing out all the rough edges, sanding them down so they can’t possibly cut. If playwrights want to cave in, we can’t stop them. If they want to revise their plays to be more commercial, we can’t stop them from doing it. But it’s a shame.”

Albee burst into the theater, fully formed, with “Zoo Story,” produced first in Berlin in 1959, then in the Village on a double bill with no less an uncompromised hero than Samuel Beckett. “I’d been writing an awful lot of mediocre poetry and two terrible novels. All of a sudden, I was turning 30, and, if I was going to write anything worthwhile, I should start.” One of the two characters on the park bench is described as having a “great weariness.”

What could a 29-year-old know about great weariness? He smiles, more knowing than weary. “I felt a sense of myself pretty young, being an orphan and adopted into an environment that I loathed and people whose values I despised and having to grow up around all of that. It gave me a sense of self that perhaps other kids don’t get as early as I got it.”

Shortly before he died last month, Grizzard (the original Nick in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Tobias in the 1996 Tony-winning revival of “A Delicate Balance”) said, “Edward always intimidates me—not on purpose. But I allow that to happen because I am in awe of his talent and his intellect and I was amazed that he at such a young age—we were both 35 at the time—knew so much about older people.”

Albee was adopted as an infant by Reed Albee, the powerful vaudeville producer, and reared in affluence in Larchmont, N.Y. He continues to resist the idea that his life and his characters are connected. But he acknowledges that the three ages of a cunning, difficult but fascinating woman in “Three Tall Women” are based on his stepmother, who rejected him for his homosexuality and threw him out of their privileged home when he was 18.

“Every character I write is limited by my perceptions, of course. I’ve written a few biographical characters, but I don’t like biography. I invent. These biographers who say, well, `Obviously if he hadn’t done this in 1971, he wouldn’t have been able to write this in 1999.’ ... That diminishes people’s awareness of invention. And it’s just ridiculous.”

And how to explain Albee’s women—complicated, rich, marvelous characters that give actresses and their audiences a reason to be grateful? He has heard this question before—and has a surprising answer.

“I think one of the things about being gay ...,” he says, drifting for a moment to a related thought. “Gay ... I hate the term. Auden thought queer was the only term, but I think that’s pretty silly, too.

“But there is an objectivity about being gay that, I think, people in the hetero trenches don’t necessarily have. When you’re in the trenches, you lose sight of the fact that you are both male and female. Arthur did not write female characters very well. He was too deeply in the hetero trench. The women in Tennessee are so strong that productions distort his plays.”

Rosemary Harris, the veteran actress who has become Albee’s silver fox in “A Delicate Balance” and “All Over,” says Albee’s wild verbal demands are like “riding a tidal wave. You have to trust him to take you to shore. It is thrilling ... and addictive.”

Albee sees himself as a “playwright who happens to be gay,” not a gay playwright. “I’m white. I’m male. I’m educated. I belong to many minorities and being gay is one of them. So what difference does it make?” Still, there was a time, not all that long ago, when a handful of important critics—most infamously Stanley Kauffmann—accused gay playwrights of destroying American marriage and concepts of femininity. “We ran into a few roadblocks ... and you realize there’s room for improvement.

“But I’ve always been perfectly happy with myself,” he says, grinning to turn the knife, “though I’m sort of saddened by the huge industry of terrible gay novels and terrible gay plays that exists.”

In addition to the season’s productions, he has a new play “forming. I keep getting visual images of it.” Does he always see them first? “Yes. No ... I don’t know. I know something is happening but I wait a long time until I can’t do anything else and then I write them down. I see the play and I hear it as a play being performed on stage. I don’t see it as some ephemeral reality. I see it as a play that I’m watching.”

He is touchingly hopeful about the future of theater. “There is nothing to replace the present tense, the live experience. It is happening while you experience it, which is quite wonderful. I find technology is doing terrible, terrible damage, not just because people can’t afford it. Any play that can’t be done with two chairs and one lightbulb has something wrong with it.”

In “Three Tall Women,” a character pleads, “Make people know they’re dying from the minute they’re alive!” In the devastating vaudeville, “The Play About the Baby,” scary grown-ups warn about the danger of loving without being tough enough to survive its loss.

Do people ever get tough enough? “I went through a big loss two years ago,” he says, referring to his companion Jonathan Thomas, who died of cancer and whose ashes are in the main house. “Do you get over it? No, but you shouldn’t get over anything that’s been going good for 35 years. You survive it a changed person, but you do survive.

“Being alive is so wonderful,” he says without even trying to shock. “People think they’re not going to die or, if they do, everything will be OK. But they’re not participating. I think one should get up every day and think, `Wow!’”

Edward Albee said “Wow.” Wow.

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