Getting Their Goat

Edward Albee comes to College Park unready to play along. Still, his mere presence provokes a thoughtful exchange on theater and life.

October 16, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The man in the audience wearing the blue sweater had had enough.

He had forked over $25 to hear Edward Albee talk - or, some might say, refuse to talk - at the University of Maryland, College Park, and he did not attempt to hide his irritation when he finally got a chance to pose a question to the playwright.

"At what part of your life," the man asked, "did you realize you had become a curmudgeon?"

Albee responded cheerfully: "Would you define `curmudgeon' for me?"

Since his interrogator was aware that Albee, possibly America's greatest living playwright, had come across the c-word before, he withdrew his question. And the Artful Dodger escaped again.

At age 75, Albee may be the eminence grise of American theater, but he seems reluctant to relinquish the role of enfant terrible. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes (for A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women) and two Tony Awards (for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?).

Chicago's Goodman Theatre is in the midst of a month-long retrospective of Albee's work. The festival includes two full-length plays and a half-dozen equally well-known one-acts - an event analogous in importance to the Sondheim Festival last summer at the Kennedy Center or the "Five by Tenn" Tennessee Williams festival slated there for next spring.

For a man who has written 27 plays and who said "playwriting is an act of communication," Albee can come across as, well, oddly uncommunicative.

During his daylong visit to College Park, Albee's behavior could be described as consistently curmudgeonly. Sometimes Albee was charming and curmudgeonly. Sometimes he was grumpy and curmudgeonly. Sometimes he was even generous and curmudgeonly. But a curmudgeon he was, from start to finish.

It's true that when he arrived at College Park at 10:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, his clothes rumpled, he had already been up for five hours.

It's also true that he has been dealing with a family crisis - his partner of three decades, Jonathan Thomas, had just undergone surgery for cancer of the bladder. It would be several days before Albee and Thomas would get the pathology report and learn to what extent the tumor has spread.

He acknowledged that he was worried, and that the wait was difficult, "though it's not as difficult for me as it is for him."

Albee had been brought to the university by the theater department and by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. It was one step of what is an unusual partnership for the arts world because it combines courses for students with a public performance.

During the day, Albee was to teach two classes and have lunch with invited students and faculty members. At night, he was to take part in a question-and-answer session moderated by Jackson Bryer, a professor in the English Department and an acquaintance of 25 years.

When Albee learned that center administrators and professors who had devoted the past month to studying his work planned to sit in on his class, his eyebrows shot up. "Absolutely not," he said.

Later, he explained that he feared that the students wouldn't ask real questions if they knew they were being observed. But this didn't placate the people who had paid for his visit. It was almost insulting, they said, referring to Albee's implication that the staff wouldn't know what was in the best interests of their own students.

"It was a tense morning," said Amy Harbison, associate public relations director for the center, choosing her words carefully.

The exception to Albee's grouchy behavior was his interaction with the students. With them, he was almost loquacious. With them, he didn't play word games.

They approached him with that mix of attitudes characteristic of those on the cusp of adulthood: hero-worship and a veneer of scorn toward authority figures.

"He's dressed all in black," one young man told another. "Very intimidating."

Actually, Albee is a small man, so his attire, which included shades and a leather jacket, can have a different effect. With his silver hair and mustache above all that ebony, he resembled a piece of expensive jewelry.

Even those students who initially scoffed ended up converts. "It was like being in church," said Catherine Trieschmann, 29, a doctoral student in theater, who facilitated the morning session. "He reminds you of what you're supposed to do, and inspires you to go out and do it."

But if Albee can be unaccommodating and curmudgeonly, his work is equally so. While each of his 27 plays is based in a familiar reality, it's a reality that lifts off at some point into the surreal. And each intentionally pokes, jostles and irritates the audience.

"Today's audience wants nothing disturbing to happen on stage," he said. "People will pay for that junk on Broadway instead of a serious play that they should be grateful to experience."

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