The Occupied Octogenarian

Special Features   The Occupied Octogenarian
 
In his 80th year, Edward Albee continues to create and provoke with works old and new.
Edward Albee
Edward Albee Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Bette Davis said the line, but Edward Albee picked it up and immortalized it, bowing vaguely in the direction of some never-named "goddamn Warner Brothers epic," and this is the line that crosses the mind — with heavy irony — when one first drinks in the sprawling living room of his two-floor abode in Tribeca. "What a dump," indeed!

It's exactly what you would want for the man often referred to as our greatest living playwright — tastefully appointed, as understated and unobvious as an Albee play, with a spaciousness that implies a freedom to create. Objets d'art from a variety of lands and cultures dot the handsome brick walls, and in a distant room "offstage" is actually a piece of sculpture by the famed Louise Nevelson, a friend of Albee's for 25 years whose last days are the subject of his newest, and 30th official, play: Occupant.

"Even when she was in the hospital, dying, fame pursued her," Albee says. "People would see her name on her hospital room and go in and talk to her. Finally, she had the nurse take down her name and just put up the word 'Occupant.' I'm interested in how people create themselves. All artists do that. She was really quite a woman."

This is Signature Theatre Company's second attempt at providing a home for Occupant. A production, directed by Anthony Page, managed a week of previews in February of 2002 before its star fell ill — it would be the last acting Anne Bancroft would ever do — and the project was indefinitely postponed. "Indefinitely" will last till June 5, when Mercedes Ruehl will take it from the top again, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon. The other role in the play, a reporter originated by Neal Huff, is now played by the much older Larry Bryggman — but Albee insists there has been no rewriting of the play: A reporter is a reporter. One month before its first performance, Occupant's limited run of eight weeks sold out — and in three days, at that! — prompting extra innings through July 6. This is the second Off-Broadway spotlight to hit Albee this spring: He directed a double bill of his early works — The American Dream (1960) and The Sandbox (1959) at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where they began.

"They do work nicely together," admits the man who spent his 80th birthday on March 12 making that happen. The American Dream mixes a daft, dysfunctional suburban family (Mommy, Daddy, Grandma) in with the hunky Adonis of the title, while The Sandbox comes up with a different Adonis and involves Mommy and Daddy leaving Grandma to R.I.P. It's one of two examples of his character-recycling this season in New York.

"When I was writing The American Dream," Albee recalls, "I got a call from Gian-Carlo Menotti, asking me to write a little 15-minute something for his festival, so I did, and I used some of the same characters that I was working with." Pairing the plays together, he says, has happened before — "a couple of times" — but not much.

The other recycled character is a 48-years-later afterthought to his first play, The Zoo Story (1959). Homelife, which Second Stage Theatre teamed with the one-act Zoo Story in 2007 under the umbrella handle of Peter and Jerry, is an hours-earlier prequel that permits a glimpse into the domestic life of Peter, a milquetoast editor, before he strolls tragically into the park and meets Jerry, his oh-so-opposite number.

"I thought I hadn't done a complete job of writing the character of Peter," he offers by way of explaining the postscript. Seeing the character with his wife "helps you understand a lot more about why Peter behaves the way he does in The Zoo Story."

And seeing The Zoo Story again makes one wonder what it must have been like to hear for the first time such a dynamic theatrical voice. "Well, the first time I heard it, of course, it was in German," he notes. "The play had its world premiere in Berlin."

How weird was that? "It was very German, but we got a very good production in New York right after that, on the same bill with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape."

That was Jan. 14, 1960, and this is now, and Albee still echoes Beckett. "Well, I would hope so," he shoots back. "So does Pinter. So does any worthwhile playwright."

His most recently written opus, Me, Myself & I, which world-premiered at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in January and will be brought to Broadway next season by Liz McCann, brings on Tyne Daly and Brian Murray dressed as if they'd just stepped out of Happy Days and Waiting for Godot, but the truth (i.e., the "story line") is that they're riding herd over identical twins named OTTO and otto.

This twin motif first materialized in The American Dream and reappeared faintly in The Lady from Dubuque, but it has haunted Albee for 80 years. He was adopted when he was 18 days old and has written of his lifelong quest for identity and his biological family. "Nearly all orphans think they're identical twins," he blithely says.

But it would be hard to imagine another Albee. He is singularly unique, whether he thinks so or not. Look no further than the wonderful third act that Dame Fortune has dealt him — four plays spinning in his 80th year! But, again, he pooh-poohs that as nothing special. "All playwrights think they should be having four productions, too."

Mercedes Ruehl and Larry Bryggman in <i>The Occupant.</i>
Mercedes Ruehl and Larry Bryggman in The Occupant. Photo by Carol Rosegg
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