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A conversation with America's preeminent playwright about winning Pulitzers, being panned and how he hopes to puzzle and offend Richmonders at the Anderson Gallery

At Home with Albee

Montauk, N.Y. —

own the circular, gravel drive stands the house that is all but hidden by evergreens and tightly clipped shrubs. Edward Albee, the celebrated American playwright and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, whose works are absurdist commentaries on American life, stands on the winding front walk staring down at the bricks. "I need to replace some of these," he says. "The winters are rough on them."

With that greeting, we shake hands and he leads the way around the house to a grass-and-slate terrace situated on a precipice about 75 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. There isn't a cloud in the sky.

Waves crash below.

As if rehearsed, he offers me one of two, large, wooden lawn chairs facing the sea. I exclaim at the vista — the expanse of water framed by lush foliage. In the opening, a large, abstract sculpture rests on a low pedestal.

"There were once many black pines out here," he explains, "but they were killed by blight."

Albee says he bought the 4«-acre estate 38 years ago, after the financial success of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"I first saw it one time when I came out to visit Una Hagen," he says, referring to the stage actress who originated on Broadway the role of Martha in "Virginia Woolf" and who lives nearby.

Long Island's south fork has changed in those four decades, he says with a sigh, referring to recent and intense residential development: "You could smell the stuff growing in the land out here."

But then, with the twinkle in his eyes clearly visible behind slightly tinted eyeglasses, he adds, "The place is worth a whole lot more than what I paid for it."

Like many Richmonders, I was intrigued when the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University announced that Albee would be organizing a major sculpture exhibition there in October. Edward Albee, curator?

I'd read "The Zoo Story." I had seen some of his plays — "Everything in the Garden" 31 years ago at Boston's Charles Playhouse and a 1995 Broadway revival of "A Delicate Balance." And a few times I'd watched the 1966 film version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with Elizabeth Taylor's unforgettable and lacerating delivery of Albee's bitter lines: "I hope that was an empty bottle, George," (after her husband smashes a bottle against their bar in an attempt to silence her tirade). "You don't want to waste good liquor … not on your salary. Not on an associate professor's salary."

Albee has long been considered one of the most insightful and brilliant poets and thinkers in theater, but I didn't know about his interest in contemporary art. And how would this author of 26 plays with the prospect of three plays running simultaneously in New York this season find time to put together an exhibition in Richmond?

In late August, while I was visiting in East Hampton, N.Y., I cold called him. He answered the phone, was quite pleasant and suggested I come out the next morning.

Out is farther out Long Island's two-lane Route 27— past Ralph Lauren, Coach, DKNY and the other tony shops of East Hampton, past the more down-to-earth town of Amaggansett, where colorful, inflatable plastic kiddie pools fill a hardware shop window, past vegetable stands selling "local spinach." Finally, Route 27 becomes a roller coaster of uneven hills as it extends to the easternmost tip of Long Island. Just before reaching Montauk's famous lighthouse is Albee's driveway.

The late-August sun is brutal and I know we can't sit and chat on the terrace much longer, no matter how mesmerizing the view. After a few minutes my host suggests we move inside.

Of medium height, trim build and with salt-and-pepper hair, Albee looks at least a decade younger than his 72 years. He is dressed this morning in drab, gray-green trousers and cotton shirt and black leather sneakers.

Entering through the kitchen, I'm struck by a small striped painting. "Betty Parsons did that," he says, referring to a late, prominent, New York gallery owner. "This is her work also," he says as we pass through the dining room, which is dominated by a large, circular pine table and a traditional pine corner cupboard. If floor to ceiling, plate glass windows and mirrored walls make the display of art difficult here, not so in the living room. A quick glance at the space reveals some 20 pieces — contemporary paintings and sculptures, African art, a few antiques and some knotty woven works folded over furniture — all carefully placed.

He explains that he put together his first exhibition some 20 years ago and has built up his collection to roughly 500 pieces. Works are distributed between his Montauk home and "the barns" nearby where he sponsors artist recipients of Edward Albee fellowships. He also has a 6,000-square foot studio in the Tribeca district of lower Manhattan as well as a house in Coconut Grove near Miami.

When did he start collecting seriously?

He startles himself by saying Richmond. Albee was in town lecturing at the University of Richmond in the early 1960s soon after the debut of "Virginia Woolf." He visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and bought a painting by Richmond artist David Wurtzel, primarily a printmaker who has lived in Italy in recent years.

"I didn't have any money until 1960 or '61, he says in reference to the commercial success of "Virginia Woolf." Since then, he says he's collected "some good stuff, some fascinating mistakes and some really good things."

He says his adopted mother once asked when visiting his art-filled New York studio, "What does it mean? … She liked cows and trees."

"Richmond is conservative, isn't it?" he asks, not necessarily expecting an answer. "I suppose the show will puzzle and offend. If it doesn't, it is a failure."

He says his association with the Anderson is through his friendship with Ted Potter, the gallery's director. "We've known each other for a long time and he's known of my interest in the visual arts," says Albee. "He's a painter himself — and an interesting one."

As for the concept for the show, Albee thinks for a minute and says, "It's hard to talk about it."

"It's abstraction, fundamentally. It will show the artist's hand at work. I wanted what would be provocative and a somewhat difficult show."

Not only has he selected the works, but he is overseeing the installation. "I do all that stuff. In the same way I'd never let anybody build my collection, that's preposterous. I don't drive the nails, but if I don't like where they put them, I'll move them," he says.

He says he's visited the gallery and since there is no elevator the heavier pieces will go on the ground floor. "They need a new museum, of course," he says with understatement.

I mention that once in the late 1960s when VCU's library occupied the building, the board of visitors stopped by on a facilities tour. The librarian instructed the students to place as many bookshelves as possible in the large, second-story room so that the floor would sag. A new library was forthcoming.

Albee seems intrigued. "Let's get all the heavy stuff upstairs so that the thing will collapse," he deadpans.

As we talk, Albee says he was adopted at two weeks old and was reared in Larchmont in Westchester County, N.Y. in a "large house with antiques. There was more of everything. … I always thought that I didn't relate to those people. I was despairing of the fact that they were bigots and Republicans and all kinds of inhuman things."

Albee says his interest in art goes back to when he was 6 years old and began drawing. And there were fine arts offerings at the boarding schools he attended, where he hung reproductions of Kandinsky and Van Gogh on his dorm walls. But "I kept getting kicked out." Eventually he graduated from Choate. He attended Trinity College in Hartford briefly, but again was asked to leave.

"I moved to Greenwich Village at 18 in 1946. I was lucky. In New York the arts were fermenting. The abstract school of painting was taking off. There were poets and off- Broadway was getting started."

For the next 10 years he supported himself with odd jobs - delivering telegrams for Western Union, working at Bloomingdale's and at Schermer Music. "I let poor students steal books," he says, still with a hint of triumph in his voice.

And he wrote.

When asked who his early influences were he mentions Bill Flannagan, his roommate for nine of those first 10 Greenwich Village years: "He knew much more than I did. And I met my elders who were creative people. …

"But in playwriting I had no mentors. Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett and Pirandello. I studied with them, I suppose," he says referring to early 20th-century dramatists.

His first play, "The Zoo Story" was first produced in Berlin — in German, a language he didn't speak — in 1959; it opened in New York a year later.

His second play was "The Death of Bessie Smith" (which the Firehouse Theatre will produce in conjunction with Albee's appearance here) followed by "The American Dream," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Tiny Alice." For "A Delicate Balance" and "Seascape" he won Pulitzer prizes in 1967 and 1975.

Of "A Delicate Balance," he says it opened to mediocre reviews, but during its 1995 Broadway revival, "It got raves, although it wasn't a better production. It's a pity not to get [positive notices] the first time. If we only had a brighter group of critics."

For many years, Albee has been outspoken about what he considers a sad state of critical writing in the United States — that critics are failing the public as much as the playwrights. What critics meet his approval? He quickly names Elliot Norton, long-time writer for the Boston Record-American and Richard Watts of the New York Post.

Don't get him started on Frank Rich, the former The New York Times drama critic who now has a column (and who began his career here in the early 1970s as theatre and film critic for The Richmond Mercury). "He was my nemesis," says Albee. "He would be unfair at every opportunity. He decided that I was not to be tolerated."

Have they ever met? "Later, we were on a panel," says Albee. "He spoke graciously of my work. I asked, 'Where were you when I needed you?' It humiliated him appropriately."

After a life in the theater for some 40 years, Albee shows no signs of slowing down. A production of "Tiny Alice" will open in New York in November and the New York premiere of "The Play About the Baby" is slated for January. "There is talk about a revival of 'Virginia Woolf' in April," says Albee, but he's mum on who might play Martha and George, saying actors jack their rates up when they know the playwright wants them for the part.

And after 40 years, what changes has he seen in theater? "The pressures are different now. They're commercial. Basically theater has gotten so expensive to go to it." He says "The Zoo Story," which cost $3,000 to mount in 1960 with a ticket price of $4, would cost a minimum on $300,000 to mount today. "Virginia Woolf," produced for $42,000 in 1962 when tickets were $7, would cost some $800,000 and $75 a ticket today. "You're getting only the upper classes. That's no good. It has nothing to do with what America is made up of."

American theater and entertainment in general he says has been "spoiled by the crap on television — opportunistic and safe — designed not to make any waves. … But there are still good plays being written — not very many."

Albee says many of the best works are being done at regional theaters. But even at these there is interference. "When board members say 'We are going to put on plays we like,' this is a form of censorship. It is a whole misunderstanding of the word entertainment."

But hasn't this always been the case?

"Yes," says Albee, "but the commercial side seems to be winning a little more. I'm not a fool, I've written 26 plays and how many of them have been commercially successful? A handful."

This begs a question: Which of his plays that were not overwhelmingly well-received deserve a second chance?

"I'm not going to say," he replies.

I press him.

"'All Over' was not a bad play and 'Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung.' I could go on and on," he says with a wry smile.

Albee, who says he's currently finishing a new play, is reluctant to discuss his creative process but says, "I translate what's in my unconscious brain to my conscious brain and write it down. I write things down when they're ready to be written down. Ferment, I suppose. Then I write things down."

He shows no sign of letting up. He will continue teaching a course in playwriting at the University of Houston where he has a commitment for three more years. He says he'd like to travel to the Easter Islands. "I've always wanted to be on that island, but it won't be a vacation," he insists.

"Vacation and retirement. I don't understand those

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