Don't put the man into his plays Double vision: Edward Albee's works reflect life as he sees it, but not necessarily as he has lived it.

October 29, 1995|By Patti Hartigan | Patti Hartigan,BOSTON GLOBE

In his plays, Edward Albee exposes the dark underside of the dysfunctional American family, but the man himself is actually an amiable, unthreatening sort, whose tweed coat and practical shoes give him the appearance of a biology professor on some sleepy New England campus. There's little reason to be afraid of Edward Albee: In fact, he can be a charming and engaging luncheon companion -- if you know the rules.

First, don't presume, like all those pesky critics, that his characters embody his personal values and views.

Don't attempt, like all those meddling directors, to impose gender-bending changes on his sacrosanct scripts.

Do understand irony.

And if at all possible, eat your vegetables. Mr. Albee, you see, is a firm believer in participating fully in life -- and, in this case, that includes lunch. So clean your plate.

He does just that during an afternoon conversation over a meal at a local fish eatery. And he offers food for thought about his Pulitzer-winning play "Three Tall Women," which will play Washington's Kennedy Center Nov. 7 through Dec. 3 and the Mechanic Theatre Feb. 28 through March 10.

In the achingly honest play, three characters named simply A, B and C represent the same woman at different stages of life. The youngest still believes in possibility; at middle age, she accepts that she has settled for a life with a less-than-faithful husband; at death's door, she is serenely ready for the end.

It's no secret that the play is about Mr. Albee's own adoptive mother, who disowned him, disinherited him and disapproved of him. Mr. Albee, 67, admits there are certain parallels to real life in "Three Tall Women," but he grows exasperated with autobiographical analyses of his plays. "She is an old woman. She is talking about her life. Why does everyone have to translate that into the playwright's intention?" he asks, pausing and then cheerfully changing the subject.

"You're not eating anything," he says, gesturing at his interviewer's untouched plate.

Next question.

Whomever the play is about, it poignantly portrays a woman who was taught to expect one thing yet receives another thing entirely. "You don't tell us that things change," the middle-aged woman says, "that Prince Charming has the morals of a sewer rat, that you're supposed to live with that and like it, or give the appearance of liking it."

To Mr. Albee, that particular bit is a testament to self-awareness. "This play is about people not lying to themselves," he says. "She is aware that those are the rules of the time, and that's better than not acknowledging it."

For several decades, Mr. Albee has written plays that show that the rules are not always fair, that the reality of family values is not necessarily all happy hearth and home sweet home. Partly as a result, his early work was categorized as the Theater of the Absurd, but in his view, his plays present a realistic portrayal of family life.

The world he depicted 30 years ago, he says, is only getting worse. "We still treat our old people very badly. We still destroy our kids by trying to turn them into carbon copies of ourselves. We are governed by knaves and fools. Every time you write a play, you think you portray a situation that people will try to change. Unfortunately, I haven't seen that happen."

Mr. Albee drew his own conclusions about family values early on. Two weeks after birth, he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee, wealthy socialites who raised him in upscale Larchmont, N.Y. It was hate at first sight. "As young as I can remember, I despised their values," Mr. Albee says. "They were right-wing. They were bigots. I didn't like them at all."

What he did like was the theater, after he saw a production of the Rodgers and Hart musical "Jumbo" that featured both an elephant and Jimmy Durante. At 12 1/2 , he wrote a three-act sex farce called "Aliqueen"; his mother, he says, threw it out. And the budding playwright also managed to get himself thrown out of a string of prep schools, as well as Trinity College in Connecticut, horrifying mother dearest.

Mr. Albee left home for good at 19, traveling 25 miles in distance yet 2,000 miles in mind-set from Larchmont to Greenwich Village. He took odd jobs, working as an office boy, a book salesman and a Western Union messenger. In 1958, he wrote "The Zoo Story."

That play was followed by a spurt of creativity: "The Death of Bessie Smith" and "The American Dream" received accolades in 1961. Then came "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1962, which appalled some and enthralled others. In 1966, "A Delicate Balance" won the Pulitzer Prize.

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