Being Edward Albee

Special Features   Being Edward Albee
 
This season, New York salutes the greatest living American playwright with a number of his works, new and old.
Edward Albee
Edward Albee Photo by Carol Rosegg

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Long before the milestone that will be celebrated officially next March was in sight — his 80th birthday — Edward Albee had confirmed his position as America's premier living dramatist, a restless, questing, ceaselessly innovative, and provocative talent whose work has scorched the theatrical landscape for a half-century or so.

So it seems absolutely characteristic of Albee's career that he will not be entering his ninth decade on the sidelines, reflecting on past glories. In a theatre season rife with major Albee revivals, he will also be represented with the Off-Broadway premiere of a one-act (Homelife) previously seen only in Connecticut, as well as a world premiere (Me, Myself and I) — hoped-for destination: Broadway; these from a writer whose last Broadway premiere, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, quite properly won him the Tony Award for Best Play in 2002. That particular play may have had no intermission, but don't be fooled: Albee offers living proof that there are indeed second acts in some American lives.

The convergence of work begins this month at Second Stage with Bill Pullman, Dallas Roberts, and Johanna Day in Peter and Jerry, a double bill of Homelife and the lacerating classic that launched Albee's career in 1959, The Zoo Story. Next comes Me, Myself, and I, at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in January, starring Tyne Daly and Brian Murray and directed by Emily Mann. In March, F. Murray Abraham is scheduled to star in a pairing of The Sandbox and The American Dream, directed by the author at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre, where they first premiered in 1961 and '62. And in May, Signature Theatre Company will conclude its season with Occupant, Albee's play about the sculptor Louise Nevelson: Mercedes Ruehl is currently poised to inherit the role originated several seasons ago by an ailing Anne Bancroft. Throw in the recent Broadway success of the Bill Irwin/Kathleen Turner Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the long-overdue West End reclamation, starring Maggie Smith, of The Lady from Dubuque — a stunning production that divided London critics — and you find a playwright not for the first time helping to define the cultural moment.

Not, of course, that the author would do anything so vulgar as engineer a theatrical immersion in his work. "I wouldn't do anything that calculated," he says. "The whole thing has happened by accident. What's nice is that I've got plays of mine being done from the last few years and also from the first five or six." Playwrights often take such opportunities to tinker with their classics but not Albee: "I don't believe in revising my work or rethinking it. I would never do what Bernard Shaw is reputed to have done." Apparently, says Albee, Shaw in later life "was going to simplify all his plays so that he could understand them. I don't believe you should go around second-guessing yourself." Homelife, his prequel to The Zoo Story, for instance, "isn't second-guessing; it is merely adding. I would have stopped if I'd had any trouble knowing Peter. But the fact is that I still knew so well who Peter was, and I knew his wife, Ann; it was as if I'd known her for 50 years.''

The Sandbox and The American Dream, meanwhile, are "plays that I've directed before, and at the Cherry Lane, so that's going to be a nice coming home," says Albee, who at deadline was more directly engaged in finding a pair of twenty-something identical twins to appear in Me, Myself and I. But press him for information on this new play about the twins (who are both called Otto) and he demurs. "Whenever anybody asks me, when I'm writing a play, what it's about, I always say that I'm finding out," he explains. "It's the unconscious that shapes the play, and then you translate it from the unconscious to the conscious. I never know what it's about until I finish it."

"The funny thing about Edward's plays is that when you first read them, you think, 'Oh God, what is he doing? This isn't going to work,'" says his American producer, Elizabeth I. McCann. "It's remarkable what happens when an actor starts performing Albee; the whole thing comes to life."

It follows logically that the playwright has acquired an ad hoc repertory troupe of actors over time — some, like Marian Seldes and George Grizzard, who go back 40 years or more, and others like Pullman and Brian Murray who are more recent recruits. John Lithgow describes living in London in 1968 while at drama school, during which time he got a job through his friend, the director Michael Rudman, helping with the American accents on a Royal Shakespeare Company season of American plays. Among the quartet of dramas was the U.K. premiere of Albee's A Delicate Balance, starring Peggy Ashcroft and directed by Peter Hall. "I have to confess that Edward came to see a run-through and said he liked it very much but not to worry so much about the accents," Lithgow recalls with a chuckle. "My heart sank."

The actor later went on to play George to Glenda Jackson's Martha in a 1989 Los Angeles production of Virginia Woolf and discovered for himself how hard-won a compliment from Albee can be. "Edward was interviewed on the subject of who were the good Georges," says Lithgow. "He was talking about the comedy of the play and the interviewer brought up our production and asked whether we had captured the comedy. Edward said, 'John, yes; Glenda, no,' which I thought was the most obscure compliment."

Seldes won a Tony for the 1967 Broadway debut of A Delicate Balance and has done various Albee plays since, including The Play About the Baby, opposite Murray, and various readings of Occupant. "I feel Edward's truly a friend," she declares. "He's friendly, he's open, and you know where you stand with him. The only place I don't know where I stand with him and never will is in wanting to fulfill what he wrote. I don't know if I have. But Edward's not going to tell you; why should he?" Grizzard, a Tony winner for Broadway's most recent Delicate Balance, recalls being the first of the original Virginia Woolf cast to leave the company and the small party that was held for him at that time. "Edward said, 'I have a speech to make,'" remembers Grizzard. "And then he said, 'All right. Thank you for gracing my play.' That was the speech. It was very moving.''

"I'm looking forward to being back in Edward's domain," says Pullman, who finds it "kind of curious, I know, and very much an honor" to be known as an Albee player. "I feel like there's some sort of genetic coding that was simpatico with his writing and his syntax. Edward's genius is not just for characters who talk in articulate ways, it's also to push characters into places where they're not so articulate."

Brian Murray had seen the original London Virginia Woolf shortly after emigrating from South Africa, but he has only worked with Albee over the past several years. "To a young actor," he says, "Virginia Woolf was like another new world: one didn't know people could write plays like that. While we were dealing with Osborne and Wesker, he was dealing specifically with a group of four people who were capable of creating the Third World War." In Me, Myself and I, Murray plays Tyne Daly's lover, a psychiatrist struggling to keep sane. "It's a joyous play and one — touch wood — that I think is extremely commercial."

Commercial isn't likely to be the first word employed by Albee as he muses on his own legacy. "I hope I will be thought of as having been useful, constructive, and entertaining in the best sense. And that people will think I was a pretty good writer," he concludes. "That would be nice, too."

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The veteran actor George Grizzard died shortly after he was interviewed for this story.

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This piece originally appeared in the October issue of The Insider's Guide, Playbill's new monthly listings and features publication distributed in and around New York City.

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