Albee on death, Dubuque, metaphysical merde

[media-credit name=”Photo by Gregory Costanzo ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Edward Albee (seated), with James Houghton (Founding Artistic Director of Signature Theatre Company).

Playwright explores ‘people lying to themselves and each other’

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  It was Harold Ross — the great, irascible founding editor of The New Yorker — who when asked, back in 1925, what his magazine was to be all about, replied: “One thing I know, it won’t be written for the little old lady from Dubuque.”

Eighty-seven years later, which is to say just the other day, a playwright named Edward Albee says dryly to this writer during a rehearsal break of Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque” at the new Signature complex on West 42nd Street: “Nobody knows that phrase any more, except people your age and my age. How is it up there, anyway?”

It is this city’s second time around for “The Lady From Dubuque” — a rebirth, Off Broadway, of one of the most painful Broadway floperoos of 1984 (during a fallow half-decade of difficult Albee plays which nobody much liked, maybe not even the playwright).

Anent that 1984 misadventure, Albee now remarks helpfully: “Ran for eleven performances.”

“No, Edward. Twelve performances.”

“Well, jeez, that makes everything okay.”

Edward Albee, who was born March 12, 1928, is in the midst of turning 84 now. I have been writing about him, pro and con (it depends on the year and the work) since 1960, when he burst upon us with his short, explosive “The Zoo Story” on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” at the Provincetown Playhouse.

Explosive? Wait for it.

In October 1962, Albee blew the whole scene apart with the arrival on Broadway of a gale force “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — which would win a Pulitzer Prize in drama that was instantly rescinded by the nice-nelly Pulitzer administrators, causing two of the award judges to resign in protest (he has since won four non-rescinded ones).

“You must remember,” Albee says today, “that when ‘Virginia Woolf’ opened, most of the reviewers were against it. Indeed, most of the reviews of my plays over the years have been either unpleasant or qualified. Does none of this have to do with the fact that I’m gay?” Pause, for cogitation, then: “I don’t think so.”

Well, maybe.

Edward has been exceptionally brave and outspoken for many years on gay rights and other matters. He wouldn’t accept White House invitations during the Bush years, among other things — but I dunno. Don’t think I ever knew or cared that he was (or wasn’t) homosexual for most of the years I’ve been writing about him and his output, from “The Zoo Story” to “Three Tall Women” (his very best) and “The Play About the Baby” and “The Goat.”

When he came in, in 2002 — just 40 years after “Virginia Woolf” — with “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia” (an incredibly brave play about a man who falls sexually in love with, yes, a goat; female, but a goat!), the genie was out of the bottle. But “The Lady From Dubuque” has little or nothing to do with any of that.

It’s a play about death, isn’t it, Edward?

“Well, somebody is dying in it, yes.” Pause. “I hate one-sentence descriptions of plays.” Pause. “It’s about how much reality is determined by our needs.” Pause. “My plays are all about the same thing, actually. People lying to themselves and each other about the truths in their lives.”

As throughout Pinter, yes? Beginning with his very early “The Birthday Party?”

“Yes. Pinter did it. Genet did it. Ionesco did it. We all did it.”

The person who’s dying in “The Lady From Dubuque” is a young woman named Jo, played at the Signature by Laila Robins, originally played (back there in 1984) by Frances Conroy.

Jo is dying of cancer and doesn’t like it one bit. She takes out her displeasure by lacerating her husband (Michael Hayden, originally Tony Musante) and everybody else during an evening of word games in her and her husband’s living room.

Then a mysterious couple suddenly materializes — a smooth, well-dressed black man and a well-dressed, aristocratic white woman (Peter Francis James and Jane Alexander; originally Earle Hyman and Irene Worth). The visitor, or intruder, identifies herself, simply, as “the lady from Dubuque.” She and her consort are here, it will turn out, to accompany the dying Jo to whatever or wherever is next.

Say, Edward, it seemed appropriate to ask — with the Grand Guignol Republican Iowa Caucus still warm in memory — you ever been to Dubuque?

“No. Is there such a place?”

I said yes, there must be. One of my early heroes, a college newspaper editor, was rugged Thomas Wardell Braden — born in Greene, Iowa and buried in Dubuque.

There are various ways of being rugged. In a magazine piece on Edward some five or six years ago, I got him talking about those fallow years in the early 1980s when he’d been out of fashion.

“After I wrote ‘Virginia Woolf,’ ” he said, ‘and didn’t write ‘Virginia Woolf II,’ things started to go south. ‘Why is he writing this metaphysical shit? Why not ‘Virginia Woolf’ again? Some of the reviewers were getting very personal and nasty. In all fairness, I had been shooting my big mouth off about the critics. I taught [theater, at the University of Houston] and went about my business.”

Eventually, it turned around again with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Three Tall Women” (a very unmetaphysical play about Edward Albee’s unsympathetic adoptive mother, who was all three of those women).

Perhaps one could think of “The Lady From Dubuque” as metaphysical shit, but the hope at Signature is that director David Esbjornson, who did such miracles with “The Goat” (I can still feel my shock at its denouement), will de-metaphysicalize “Dubuque.”

That forgotten venture was brought back to life by Esbjornson out at Seattle Rep some four years ago — but Albee doesn’t know “who gets the blame” for the show. “May have been David’s idea. May have been Jim Houghton’s. May have been…well, the truth is that Signature commissioned me to write a new play with which to open the new Gehry-designed complex, and then I found I couldn’t finish it in time.”

Edward, five or six years ago you said to me: “I plan to go on writing till I’m 90 or gaga.”

That stopped him, for a split second. Then, blithely: “It can’t be 90 anymore. Ninety is too close. It has to be 100 or gaga.

Don’t bet that he won’t make it. The 100, I mean, not the gaga.

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by David Esbjornson
A Signature Theatre production
Currently in previews
Opens March 5, closes March 25
In The End Stage Theatre, at the Signature ACenter (480 W. 42nd St., btw. Dyer & 10th Aves.)
For tickets ($25), call 212-244-7529 or visit signaturetheatre.org