"Anything that isn't filled with ambiguity is missing something."
- Edward Albee, March 24, 2011
Seeing and hearing the great playwright Edward Albee speak at Georgetown University's glorious Gaston Hall yesterday evening was a rare pleasure. The occasion was the opening of this weekend's long-time-in-the-planning Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival. Albee and NPR's Susan Stamberg spoke for a little more than an hour, about Albee's classic creation "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (currently enjoying a fine production at Arena Stage - 1/2-price tickets at Goldstar), other Albee plays and the works of Williams, whom Albee said he met a couple times at a cocktail party here and there (probably around Central Park in New York, he said). He said he especially recalled meeting Williams' sister Rose whom he recalled as quite nice. Blanche in Streetcar is supposed to be based partly on Rose, though Albee did speak about how every plawright must become the character he or she is writing. That's part of the process - so when he was young he would imagine old, "and now I try to remember being young." Asked by Stamberg if any actor has surprised him in one of his plays, he paused and looked at the audience as if, "Yes, I have something important to say on this." He then specifically complimented Amy Morton (though he needed the audience to prompt his name), who is playing Martha in Virginia Woolf at Arena. He said she read the character of Tobias in the Pulitzer-winning "A Delicate Balance" during Arena's current Festival where every one of his plays is being read. He then begged her to play Tobias in a production somewhere, quite a compliment to a part that has featured actors such as Hume Cronyn and George Grizzard (whom I saw on Broadway). Interestingly, Albee was asked how many of these readings he has seen in person and he mentioned just one other play, "The Man Who Had Three Arms," which opened and closed quickly on Broadway but he has a special place for. (I was at Arena that night seeing Virginia Woolf and was told Albee was in the house.)
Stamberg asked about Elizabeth Taylor who died this week and famously played Martha in Mike Nichols' film version of Virginia Woolf (with Richard Burton). Albee said she was a "hoot" and did a good job in the film, trying to look and act "middle-aged" as she was only 32 at the time and the part was written for a 52-year-old woman. George is supposed to be younger than Martha and was played by Burton, who was 52 at the time. Albee recalled his initial conversation with producer Jack Warner in Hollywood, when he was told that James Mason and Bette Davis would be playing the lead characters. Albee was more than fine with this casting - which would have been age appropriate - riffing that he would have especially wanted to see Davis playing Martha imitating Bette Davis early in the first act, with the well-known line, "What a dump." He also commented on seeing Kathleen Turner read Martha at a recent benefit. She played the character in a Broadway and Kennedy Center run about five years ago with the great Bill Irwin. (Did anyone see his "Fool Moon"? What a delight!) Albee could not help but say that Turner makes a slight mistake in her Martha. "Funny, she did the same thing on Broadway," he recalled.
This kind of spontanaeity is what makes the just-turned 83-year-old such a delight. He also told a story about being called by the legendary producer David Merrick in the mid '60s to come to Boston and try to fix the pre-Broadway musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" called "Holly Go-Lightly." For real. "I liked Truman's [Capote] novel," Albee said, "and had no idea what I was doing so I decided to give it a shot." He said that, fortunately, it never opened on Broadway so he could not be taken apart by the critics - although "if I had two more weeks, I think I could have saved it." Reading a TBD piece this week by Maura Judkis, I see that Mary Tyler Moore was the star of that production - Albee did not mention that yesterday. (To quote Judkis's piece: “He transformed our lighthearted musical into a dark and rather gloomy semiopera,” actor Richard Chamberlain, who starred opposite Moore as the writer Jeff, wrote of Albee...“I had never known professional failure before and I was stunned and heartbroken... The audience yelled back at the stage during performances, before walking out.” He continued: “In theater, there is something called magic. Sometimes it arrives, sometimes it doesn’t. It definitely didn’t arrive at Tiffany’s.” Wow, she even links to Chamberlain's website where he has actual video of the production!)
Lastly, Albee had some great words when asked if he ever worked with the famous director Elia Kazan (who testified to Congress against artists during the Communist era), who was known for adding his own words to plays: Albee said no and yelled what he would have said if he had, "Write your own f***in' play, Elia!" Albee said that his copyrights say that nothing can be changed in his texts and he is adamant on this. Asked if he ever goes back to change anything, he said no. "I was a different person when I wrote that [a play from 20 years ago]. And as I said, no one should change the works." Unprompted, he also said that when the inevitable lists of the great dead American playwrights come up - O'Neill, Williams and Miller - there is a glaring omission: Thornton Wilder. He called "Our Town" and "Skin or Our Teeth" masterpieces and mentioned last year's memorable Off Broadway production of Our Town and bringing the play back to its deserved place. (This is one reason that I cringe when I hear of Washingtonians going up to New York and only seeing the much-publicized Broadway productions. Much of the great stuff happening is Off Broadway - Part of this problem is that the Post's Peter Marks loves to go to Broadway - today again is a review of a new Broadway musical when there is SO MUCH here in Washington. I will try to give notices of Off Broadway stuff in the future. That Our Town production did indeed make you feel that you were watching a great theatrical event, down to the smell of bacon wafting up in the last act.) "I don't think they [O'Neill, Miller and Williams] would mind us talking about them," Albee said with a wink that I could see even from the balcony. Oh, I didn't event mention that three short performances were interspersed with Albee's interview. The incredible Albee actress Kathleen Chalfant read from Williams' Camino Real, students did a more than credible job with a scene from Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, and my favorite Washington actor, Rick Foucheux, teamed with Susan Lynskey in a beautiful and haunting scene between Mitch and Blanche in Streetcar. What poetry! I do not recall magic in that scene in last season's Cate Blanchett Streetcar at KenCen.
Try to get to Virginia Woolf at Arena and certainly one of the productions at Georgetown this weekend - many of which are free (including an interview with Christopher Durang Sunday). We are very privileged to be at the center of all this amazing theater!