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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

Albee and me

Edward Albee is once again in fashion, with his plays being performed this season in Chicago, St. Louis, and Springfield.

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Edward Albee

Illinois Times theater critic Phil Funkenbusch recalls his own days working as the playwright's assistant, back when his boss couldn't get a good review.

In January of 1980 I was living in New York City, and one early evening I walked past the Morosco, a beautiful 63-year-old theater that would later be demolished to make way for a giant Marriott Hotel.

Previews of Edward Albee's new play were scheduled to begin there the next night. Albee was 51 and already acknowledged as his generation's greatest playwright. His career started 20 years earlier, with such major triumphs as The Zoo Story (1959) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). In 1974 he won his second Pulitzer Prize (for Seascape), but the subsequent six years brought only two plays, Listening (1975) and Counting the Ways (1976), both of which had met with less-than-positive reviews. Still, hopes were high for his new play, titled The Lady From Dubuque. Though performances weren't supposed to start until the following day, a large crowd was milling around on the sidewalk in front of the Morosco. I decided to hang out for a while to see what was going on.

I learned a run-through of the play was being staged for an invited audience. I sneaked in, made my way upstairs to the mezzanine, and watched the play, which featured Irene Worth in the title role, along with Earl Hyman and Frances Conroy (now known as the mother in HBO's Six Feet Under). I recognized Albee seated a few rows in front of me, taking notes throughout the performance.

The Lady From Dubuque was an amazing piece of theater--raw, painful, humorous. The audience is left uncertain as to whether Worth is a stand-in for the Angel of Death. I saw the play several more times that week, but the critics didn't buy into Albee's existential work. With these harsh notices, The Lady From Dubuque closed in just ten days. I couldn't understand why there wasn't room for this play on Broadway, but Broadway's commercial theaters were changing: soon very few dramas would ever get the chance to find an audience there.

A year later Albee was back on Broadway with his stage adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. This time, before the show had even opened, news of a play-in-trouble was in the papers. The producer, desperate to sell tickets, began marketing Lolita as a salacious sex show, and the star, Donald Sutherland, was unhappy and not giving a good performance.

I went to the previews, and one night noticed Albee standing in front of the theater. I walked up to him and said I had seen The Lady From Dubuque several times--it was a favorite of mine. He smiled. "You're one of the few then," he said, thanking me as he shook my hand.

The next week I was on my way into the theater to see Lolita again, and Albee came up to me, asking, "Back for more punishment?" I said I was fascinated by the play and came to see what changes he had made before the opening. I had some familiarity with theater in central Illinois, but this was a completely different experience: a brand-new play.

I asked Albee whether he answered his mail. "Sure," he said. I told him I had questions about some of his plays, and he gave me his address. When Lolita finally opened, the critics gave Albee another thumbs-down, and the play closed after only a nine-day run.

I sat down and wrote Albee a letter, asking a few questions about The Lady from Dubuque and what new play he was working on. I received a warm reply, answering all of my questions. I later learned that Albee regularly champions young artists and devotes a lot of time to help students, writers, and actors. Perhaps he considers it payback: as a young man, he received important advice from W.H. Auden (who, legend has it, told him to write pornographic verse to improve his style) and Thornton Wilder (who immediately recognized and encouraged his gifts as a playwright). But it didn't matter why he was so open and friendly--he didn't have to be helpful. My admiration grew.

Another year went by, and I read that the premiere of his new play, The Man Who Had Three Arms, was coming to Broadway after an out-of-town tryout at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The play would be at the Lyceum, and this time Albee himself would direct. I wrote a "remember me?" letter and asked him whether there might possibly be a job for me on the production. I received a positive reply a few weeks later: "Would love to have you work on the show; will be in touch."

I became the assistant to the director on the 1983 Broadway production of The Man Who Had Three Arms, starring the late Robert Drivas. My job consisted of taking notes at each rehearsal, jotting down all the problems with the staging, and typing up any changes Albee would make. When I received my first paycheck, I went out and bought a pair of Clark shoes.

My job should have ended on opening night, but Albee had to fly to Denver the next day. He was supposed to teach a college playwrighting course that semester, so he fixed it for me to stay on while he was away.

The process of watching the play evolve during previews was fascinating. I took special notice of the various comments I heard from the audience. But unlike many playwrights, Albee makes few, if any, changes once he has the play in his head--and sometimes he walks around with it in his head for months before writing down a word. He definitely doesn't undertake major revisions.

I remember one notable exception. A couple of days before the opening night of The Man Who Had Three Arms, Albee handed me some notes to type up--on one page he had rewritten the play's last line. I thought the negative buzz must be getting to him, and I asked whether he was sure he wanted to change that line. Looking back, I can't believe I actually said that to him, but I felt I knew what he was trying to say and the rewrite would have drastically altered that message. He looked through the pages and finally said, "You're right--this is good." He left the line unchanged. Years later, though, when the play was published in a collection, I noticed that not only had he changed that last line again--he had given the play an entirely new ending.

As the curtain rose on opening night, Albee turned to me and said, "Take good notes--I'm going to the movies." He walked out onto 45th Street and didn't return until just before the curtain fell. I asked what film he'd seen. "What else?" he said with a grin. "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life."

The critics were not kind to The Man Who Had Three Arms, and the production closed after 16 performances. The play still had many fans and went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But once again Broadway had turned its back on Edward Albee. He seemed to take it in stride, saying, "They have always wanted me to write Son of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

In the summer of 1984, I was working at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. As my job was coming to a close and I was wondering what I'd be doing next, I received a phone call from Albee, asking if I would be available to work for him during the next several months at his office in Tribeca. He was busy teaching at Brandeis and the University of Houston, as well as overseeing a production of The Lady From Dubuque at the English Theatre in Vienna. The works that had been dismissed here were receiving critical acclaim in Europe.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there were no second acts in American lives, but Edward Albee was embarking on what's now considered a third phase in his career. After writing Finding the Sun, Walking, and Marriage Play, he delivered his monumental Three Tall Women, an examination of three stages in a woman's life. It would be staged to rave reviews in 1994 and won him his third Pulitzer Prize, which he followed up with an off-Broadway hit, The Play About the Baby (1999). In 2002 he returned to Broadway with The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, probably his most shocking and emotional play. The Goat won the Tony Award for Best Play.

This fall the Goodman Theatre in Chicago is producing a six-week festival celebrating the works of Edward Albee, in honor of the playwright's 75th birthday. The festival will include productions of The Play About the Baby (September 20 through November 2) and The Goat (September 27 through November 2), as well as several of his one-act plays. "A Conversation with Edward Albee" will take place on Monday, October 13, at 7 p.m. (admission is free, but reservations are required). A panel discussion on "Acting Albee," featuring "well-known actors" moderated by New York Times critic Mel Gussow, is offered the following Monday, October 20, at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call the Goodman box office at 312-443-3800.

The Goat will also be produced in St. Louis at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. It's presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (October 22 through November 9). The Rep box office is at 314-968-4925.

Last but not least, Three Tall Women will be staged by the Springfield Theatre Centre, February 6 through 15; call 523-0878 to reserve seats.

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