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Part-time pussycat

February 04, 2009|Charles McNulty Theater Critic Reporting from New York >>>

Edward Albee, without question our nation's greatest living playwright, lives just the way you might expect him to -- in a rarefied artistic ozone that feels completely at home to him.

African sculptures and 20th century European and American paintings proliferate in his TriBeCa loft, like wildflowers on a sunny hillside. An elevator opens directly to the apartment, where a flirty feline named Abigail, a part Abyssinian acrobat, insists on making friends before allowing entry into this heightened realm, in which a Kandinsky and a Chagall stare each other down, a little Picasso etching lurks on a back table, and alarming masks and seemingly animate artifacts track your every move.

Famously fussy about language, Albee prefers to call himself an "accumulator" rather than "a collector," though there's nothing random about the objects in his private gallery. Asked what the display might say about his aesthetic, he dryly answers, after a meditative beat, that he "knows what he's doing." He lightly shoos away the notion of a connection with his playwriting, but the truth is probably closer to what he told his biographer Mel Gussow: "Art should expand the boundaries of the form and, simultaneously, it should change our perceptions. I despise restful art."

Chances are, when he takes the stage of Royce Hall on Saturday for "An Evening With Edward Albee," a UCLA Live event that's intended to draw out his thoughts on "the power of the arts as a catalyst for change," this senior statesman of American drama will dismantle, with his usual take-no-prisoners precision, the received wisdom and shopworn pieties that are always obscuring what pure artists like himself are attempting to do.

Still trim and vigorous at 80 (a hearing aid is perhaps his one visible concession to aging), Albee has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. As someone who has seen him clip the verbally woolly wings of interviewers, I approached the privilege of meeting him on his home turf with a fair amount of trepidation. And despite having corrected people in the past on the pronunciation of his name -- it's Awl-bee, not Al-bee -- I misspoke soon after greeting him, and the error was gently though promptly pointed out.

But this master of invective -- the man who set the theatrical world ablaze in 1962 with the emasculating marital crossfire of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- is, well, no offense to Abigail, something of a pussycat in person.

"I'm very nice until I'm crossed," Albee says with a calm courtliness. "I only get really annoyed when the situation demands it. But then my response is less anger than couth. Anger diminishes your ability to be objective. Frank O'Hara wrote a poem titled 'In Memory of My Feelings,' and that is essentially what writers are doing when they write."

Rialto lore has painted Albee as quite a tyrannical overseer of his work, and he admits that's he can be a "control freak." "I insist that people do every line of the play that I have written," he says. "I have approval of my actors and my director. And design also, because I want people to see the play that I wrote. I'd rather it stand and fall on what I did than on what somebody else did."

Given the intense roller-coaster ride he's had with the critics over the years, it's no wonder he feels the need to maintain a tight grip. But something in him softens when he reflects on the great talents who have brought his characters to life. And it's those luminaries who are no longer with us -- Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Uta Hagen -- who spring immediately to mind.

Of course, the old Zeus fire returns when he recalls, without naming names, the three actors he "would never work with again." With a faint smirk, he adds, "Unfortunately, they all keep working, though I'm glad to see one's career is going down fast."

Albee has a penchant for pungent truth-telling. In some respects, he's a more sober version of Claire, the illusion-puncturing alcoholic in his 1966 play "A Delicate Balance," who can't help remarking, while gazing at family members writhing in their protracted existential crises, "that there are so many martyrdoms here."

But one shouldn't give short shrift to the Albee who's a passionate advocate of the arts, a mentor to younger dramatists and a social commentator with an incisive gift for dispelling fog. And now, after Harold Pinter's passing in December, he is one of the last of the English-language playwrights to have attained a level of cultural standing that has transcended the parameters of theater.

"I liked Harold a lot," Albee says. "I liked his politics, I liked his work, and I also liked that he admired Sam Beckett as much as I did."

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