"With Bush in office another four years I'm supposed to smile?"
While the photographer offers instructions and poses him at various stations in his striking TriBeCa loft, Edward Albee is needling her and pretending not to enjoy himself. He's hungry, but both he, looking dapper in a sport coat, shirt and pants, and his home are so photogenic that lunch has to wait.
. . . follow in the sizable Broadway footsteps of Sally Field and Bill Irwin.
Albee, perhaps our most honored living playwright -- his works include "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "A Delicate Balance" and "Three Tall Women" -- is in the midst of one of his "in" periods. "Virginia Woolf" is being revived on Broadway this month with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, he has two plays ready for takeoff and he's working on yet another. But he's been around long enough to know that glory is fleeting. "I'll be 'out' again soon," he says jauntily.
The photo session completed at last, the soft-spoken Albee (who turned 77 yesterday) suggests a Japanese place around the corner where he can indulge in a little sushi.
Today's topic is not a new endeavor but a three-year-old play: "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?," which had its Washington premiere last week at Arena Stage. "The Goat" tells a familiar tale -- middle-aged married man falls for another woman -- but it has inspired a lot of conversation, because in this case the other woman is a goat.
On the page, at least, the play is very funny.
"All of my plays are funny," he says, mock-indignant. "My characters have senses of humor." Pause. "I love the laughter that finally catches in the throat, and you suddenly realize, 'I'm not supposed to be laughing.' "
The chief characters in "The Goat" are Martin, a renowned architect who's just turned 50; his wife, Stevie; and their son, Billy. When she realizes Martin has betrayed her with a goat -- not merely having sex with it but also falling in love -- Stevie tries hard to control her emotions as she vents her outrage at him. ("How the hell did you know it was a she -- was a female? Bag of nipples dragging in the dung? Or isn't this your first?!")
But in the end, the play is about much bigger issues than goat sex: tolerance, revenge, what love is, who gets to decide. When it opened in the spring of 2002, it was, surprisingly, Albee's first new play in nearly two decades to open on Broadway. It won the Tony Award and played nine months, helped at the box office by presence of Sally Field in the replacement cast.
Still, the play closed in the red -- his three Broadway offerings from the early '80s had made quick exits -- which means that for investors and keepers of lists, it goes down as a flop. Though he has had some hits, commercial failure is commonplace for all serious playwrights, Albee included.
Is he optimistic about the theater?
"What is the theater?" he replies. "I'm optimistic about the fact that there are a lot of good playwrights around the world. . . . I feel very optimistic about young audiences who care a lot about serious theater and spend more time off-Broadway than on. I'm disgusted by the commerce." Financial people, he adds, are "doing everything they can to remove art from the theater, and they get only commerce. And that I think is a criminal act.
"When we did 'Virginia Woolf' on Broadway in 1962, it cost 42,000 bucks," he says. "Of course, a ticket was $7. Now a production would cost a million and a half, and tickets are $75. . . . And the people who are putting up the money for the play . . . want something the critics will like and the audience will like."
A play about a man who falls in love with a goat wouldn't necessarily fit that ideal.
" 'Couldn't we change this to a girl?' " he breaks in, speaking for some nameless money person, and then provides the answer: "It is a girl -- a girl goat."
Albee recalls that theatergoers sometimes walked out during performances of the play. Most commonly it happened not while goat love was being discussed but during a fleeting homoerotic sequence. "Goats are okay as long as they're the right sex," he concludes dryly. "But don't try it with a guy."
The dramaturge for Arena's production has written an introduction to the play in which he observes that, in ancient Greek mythology, the goat represented harmony between the gods and man. Maybe that's why Sylvia is a goat and not a dog or a pig or a goose.
Albee has always resisted symbolists when they parse his works. "Sylvia is a goat because Martin fell in love with a goat," he says, making it sound quite reasonable. "The play is not filled with mythology. It's that simple. It's a real goat, it's not a metaphorical goat. It's a real goat."
Albee writes his plays in longhand, and his stage directions are copious. "I write down what I see and what I hear," he explains. "I see the play in front of me being performed. And so I write down exactly what I hear, and how the lines are spoken. . . . I've discovered over the years that when the actors and the director pay no attention to it, the rehearsal takes a week longer."
Not that he's averse to outside contributions. "Other people have good ideas," he says. "If it's something for the benefit of the play, the playwright would be a fool not to accept it. But if it's for the benefit of the play and not for the benefit of the box office. People keep saying 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' is too long. I say, 'Too long for what? Does it seem long?' 'No, but people aren't used to sitting there for three hours.' Well, they'd better get used to sitting there."
And certain notions are simply not allowed: For example, "People still have the half-[bleep] idea that 'Virginia Woolf' is really the story of four men. If I'd wanted to write a play about four guys, I would've done it. It's that simple. My plays must be done with actors of the same sex as the characters."
Sitting here at a window table, maneuvering the sushi with his chopsticks -- and saving for last a couple of scary pieces that, he says, come from the south end of a sea urchin -- Albee looks like anything but an angry man. But we mustn't be fooled.
He was a 1996 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. The weekend is said to be a gratifying one for the chosen five.
"It's all right," he says. "You don't get to say anything. Nobody interviews the honorees. And a number of us have very strong opinions about the way the government is being misrun. I have not been going to the White House for the last three years. I gave Bush a chance, but . . . having come to the conclusion that he was dangerous and destructive, I don't want to be in the same building with him."
Clearly that's been the subject of some lively conversations. "I talk to my friends who've been going and ask, 'What are you going to the White House for -- why go?' And some of them say: 'Well, we go to the White House because the shrimp is awfully good. But we don't get in line and shake his hand.' . . . I just resent him being in my building."
One pivotal issue of the recent campaign was gay marriage, and Albee is ready for the question.
"I don't give a damn about religious ceremonies," he says. "I'm for civil ceremonies . . . for everybody. The religious thing -- that's up to the church. Let them catch up to the 21st century. I've been in a happy relationship for the past 35 years of my life. [His partner is sculptor Jonathan Thomas.] I see no need for a ceremony or a legal thing to make my relationship better than it is. Everything is fine. But I do think that if people wish to celebrate their unions, they should be allowed to do it, of course."
As for the legal benefits of marriage: "No distinctions. It's supposed to be a democracy."
Albee's loft is furnished comfortably with a lot of black leather and adorned with what looks like a fortune in artworks. What's nowhere to be seen are the rewards of his long career -- Tonys, Pulitzer certificates . . .
"I am embarrassed," he says a little vehemently, "when I go into people's houses and see awards on display. . . . I know I've got them. I don't have to look at them all the time and I don't have to display them."
Do awards mean anything to him?
"Well, yes is better than no," he allows. "If they're giving out awards, I'd rather get them." The danger, he says, is that if they become too important, "you might start compromising your work to get them."
He's won three Pulitzer Prizes, second only to Eugene O'Neill, which is a particular benchmark. "O'Neill got four, but he got his fourth for dying," Albee says. ("Long Day's Journey Into Night" was produced, and honored, posthumously.) "Well, not for dying, but after he died. I can wait."
Playwrights own a particular kind of fame -- their names resonate far more widely than their faces. "I'm surprised still when people come up to me and thank me for having written this or that play," Albee says.
Must make him feel good.
"No," he says, sounding surprised at the idea. "It's nice, it's nice for them. I'm glad that the work gave them pleasure. . . . Does it make me feel good? No. It makes the work feel good."
So what does make him feel good?
"Oh, come now," he says, giving a look that seems to go on for days. "I'm only 76, for God's sake."