Laughing in the Dark 

The education of Edward Albee

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
Photo by Meg Henson

From this spot on Tribeca’s Greenwich Street, you can look out across the Hudson River to New Jersey. At a quarter to 10 in the morning, there are few pedestrians about and not much traffic either, and the new sun fails to blunt the cold stab of a brisk breeze. A pair of chilled Dalmatians, tied to a bicycle rack outside a bookstore, await their owner. Former warehouses, manicured with potted plants and glossy paint, have been transformed into artists’ lofts, coffee shops, clothing stores and apartments. Carved into the brickwork on one such building is a reminder of its commercial heyday: “Mercantile Exchange 1872–1884.” Standing on what was once the loading dock, I can see five nameplates, each with a little round button to the right. The rectangle at the very top unceremoniously frames the name “Albee,” as it has for about half a century. In that time, its occupant has traveled on and off (and off-off) Broadway — and all points in between.

Despite creating fairly recognizable characters, and motives for them, Edward Albee was associated early on with the absurdist wing of America’s avant-garde theater. His initial contributions to that movement were one-acts such as The Sandbox (1960), Zoo Story (1960) and The American Dream (1961). Albee was fleetingly embraced by arbiters of commercial taste with his Broadway premiere, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and nabbed a Pulitzer Prize (the first of three) for A Delicate Balance (1966). It was about this time that “reality” in his plays grew increasingly ambiguous, his prose strategically more obtuse, in conjunction with his attraction to elliptical dramatic structures. Everything in The Garden Box (1967), Quotations From Chairman Mao (1968) and All Over (1971) demonstrates Albee’s skin-dive from the comparative shallows of marital discord in Virginia Woolf into the tangled depths of linguistic abstraction and symbolism. Seascape (1975), for which Albee received his second Pulitzer, features two characters that are large creatures from the sea boasting lizardlike features.

“Mr. Albee is still working in an ornately convoluted ‘literary’ style that has no conversational feel to it,” Walter Kerr complained in The New York Times about Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque in 1980. “By the time we get the syntax unraveled, the play has moved on to new difficulties.” Kerr never stopped complaining about Albee’s detachment and artifice until Frank Rich pounded that gavel with even more fervor after Kerr’s retirement.

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By the mid-1980s, none of Albee’s other plays had achieved the critical success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and most stage pundits were chalking him off as a has-been. Yet he kept writing, working, unperturbed, in American universities and European theaters. Well, maybe he was a little perturbed, until 1994, when Three Tall Women, based on his adoptive mother, received a third Pulitzer and Time magazine proclaimed, “Albee is back!”

This month, in which he turns 74, Albee is back once again with three plays — one old and two new — arriving in the New York region simultaneously: The McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, is hosting a revival of All Over with Rosemary Harris, Michael Learned and Myra Carter that is rumored to be NYC-bound. Meanwhile, off-Broadway at the Signature Theater: Peter Norton Space, Anne Bancroft — as soon as she recovers from pneumonia — stars as sculptor Louise Nevelson in Albee’s new biographical play, Occupant. And finally, most remarkable in an era when even Neil Simon can’t land a Broadway opening, Albee’s much-anticipated new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, opens this week on Broadway at the John Golden Theater, with Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman.

Standing on the loading dock at 9:59 a.m., with all this and the playwright’s reputation as a formidable interview subject in mind, I press the buzzer a couple of times and wait. Nothing. Then I notice a bespectacled man in an overcoat, with a shock of silver hair and a mustache, and a newspaper under his arm, striding toward an elevator door on the other side of the dock. On seeing me approach, Albee extends his hand for a firm grasp.

At the fifth floor, the elevator opens directly into Albee’s cavernous two-tiered loft. The main room is a broad expanse of polished hardwood floor, raw brick walls, and, all the way at the far end, a kitchen and a spiral staircase. When Albee slips into the kitchen to get some coffee, I wander through a small forest of primitive-looking sculptures (including the work of his friend Nevelson) and abstract paintings. Sunshine pours in from above, warming the interior brick. Albee, now wearing a leather jacket and a hearing aid, returns from the kitchen, his shoes squeaking. We settle around a glass table. He speaks gently, softly, but with a twinkle in his eye, and occasionally he holds out a crooked finger to accentuate a point.

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