Giant warehouses loom above the dirty snow on the steet where Edward Albee lives.
Some of the old buildings are still used to dispense dairy products to the markets of Manhattan. But many of them are being converted into elegant homes for elegant artists. Albee greets visitors on the loading dock that serves as the front porch for his building and takes them up to his apartment in a manually operated freight elevator. He requests his guests to remove their shoes at the door so the slush will not intrude on the gleaming wooden floor of his penthouse.
The place is full of space. Some of the ceilings top 20 feet. One corner of the big room is partitioned into little rooms. The Hudson and the World Trade Center appear beyond the window, and abstract paintings line the walls.
Albee's home looks like a place where a national institution can relax in style. And he is "our greatest living playwright," in the words of Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens, who booked Albee's production of eight of his short plays into the new Terrace Theater for the next two weeks.
"That was a nice thing for him to say," Albee says. "But he's passed up a number of opportunities to produce my plays. He should book more of my plays."
There are those who would dispute Albee's enshrinement as our playwright laureate. They say he was a flash in the early-'60s pan and hasn't turned out much of worth since "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1962. Certainly Albee has written nothing that matched the public appeal of "Virginia Woolf."
His plays no longer appear as frequently as they did in his startling salad days. Twelve of the 16 works listed in his resume were written in the decade between 1958 and 1968. His second decade as a playwright proudced only two full-length plays and two oneacts.
Though Albee won Pulitzer Prizes for "A Delicate Balance" (1966) and "Seascape" (1975), much of his post-"Woolf" work has been criticized as abstract and lifeless. Three screenplays, including his adaptation of his own "The Death of Bessie Smith" and a script about Nijinsky, have gone unproduced.
The press was requested not to review the Albee one-acts in their engagement at Columbia University, but last week The Village Voice went ahead and panned them. Albee is not pleased when informed of the review."I guess they'll have a lawsuit coming up," he says. (Later Albee adds that he found his apartment through a Village Voice ad: "At least they have good ads.")
The set of one-acts includes Albee's first produced play, "The Zoo Story," and his most recent, "Counting the Ways." They are double-billed on one of the four programs in the repertoire. Other early plays on the program are "The Sandbox," "Fam and Yam" and "The American Dream." Also from the later years are "Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung" and "Listening," which was first heard on National Public Radio's "Earplay" series. Albee regards his first few plays as his "flashiest, most obvious work," but says he is more fond of the later plays that the public has resisted.
"'Zoo Story' can take care of itself nicely," he says. "It doesn't need my protection." Some of the others do, which is why he is directing more and more of his own work.
"If an author can learn the craft of directing, and have enough objectivity about his own work so he's not protective of its faults, he can bring his plays closer to his own intentions than any other director can," says Albee. He sees this "clarity of intention" as his forte as a director.
"A lot of playwrights shouldn't get near their own plays," he continues. "They're hysterics, they can't work with actors, they think conceptually instead of practically."
Asked to look objectively at his own work, he says his "Malcolm" (1965) was "not very good." And within many of his plays he finds "indulgences" that Albee, the director, cuts. "Look here," he tells himself when he discovers such a blot. "This isn't working on stage."
But he would object if another director tried to cut the same passage: "I would become stubborn and authorial."
Though he looks younger, Albee is 50. His birth certificate says he was born in Washington, but he was soon orphaned and adopted by a famous New York theater family.
He was ejected from a series of schools on the way to Trinity College in Hartford.There he lasted three semesters before getting the boot. He had a habit of "wandering around Hartford or going to the courses the seniors were taking" instead of his own. He laughs at suggestions that the troubled teachers in "Virginia Woolf" were based on people at Trinity: "I didn't spend much time with the faculty." Wherever he goes, he adds, "Every college claims to have a George and Martha. Maybe one couple has been moving around from college to college."
Prior to his playwrighting days, his most memorable job was as a Western Union messenger on the Upper West Side. "It kept you out in the air," he says, "and it was a nice job because it could never possibly become a career." He learned "to cadge tips very well" and relied on them for his daily bread.
Albee had to deliver a lot of bad news, and the worst part of it was that "whenever someone would die in the charity wards, the city would send the death telegrams collect. They cost $1.25."
The messenger could spot these bad tidings before delivery from a symbol on the envelope. Albee developed a method: He would warn the prospective bereaved that he had very bad news, collect; he would suggest that the information be copied and returned to the envelope intact; and he would tell his boss that the next of kin refused delivery. Usually he would still get his quarter tip.
"I think they [his employers] were getting suspicious," says Albee, but he held the job for 2 1/2 years. Out of the Western Union environment arose "The Zoo Story," he says. And "Virginia Woolf" fans will note that George killed Martha's dream of a son by delivering the news via Western Union.
When he was about to turn 30, Albee felt that he faced "a very important moment. If you hadn't conquered the world by the time you were 30 you might as well jump off a building." He had failed at "every other branch of writing." So he turned to plays as an alternative to jumping from a skyscraper (though now that he is free to make jokes about it, he suggests "they are similar occupations.")
Albee had to go to Germany to see the first production of his first play, and he didn't understand a wor the actors spoke. "But all opening nights are like that," he says. He believes European producers have been more receptive to his more difficult work than Americans have.
Because his first plays were so successful, Albee quickly became Required Reading -- a fixture in the academic world he rejected and mocked. He has mixed feelings about this, but generally he believes that "misinterpretation is preferable to indifference."
His tour of one-acts was designed primarily for campuses. Colleges are always doing his work, he says, so he might as well show them how it should be done. The tour includes all of his one-acts except "The Death of Bessie Smith," which would have added three additional actors to the company, and would have been, he says, economically unfeasible.
Albee doesn't travel with the tour. "It's not an animal act," he explains.
He is busy with other projects. As one of the artists asked to revive the theater program at Lincoln Center, he would like to take the smallest of the theaters and stage a season of "tough one-acts" by Americans "from Tennessee [Williams] on down through all the people you would imagine -- Rabe, Babe, Shepard -- and some you've never heard of." He believes "younger playwrights will take more chances with one-acts than with longer forms," citing his own "Mao" and "Listening" as his most experimental works. A oneact play is "not an anecdote, a diminishment," he says. "It's an intense statement without pause."
Albee's new full-length play, "The Lady From Dubuque," is scheduled to open in April, with Albee directing. It's about "how our identity is created by others peoples' reality," he says."Does that sound like a comedy? It's fairly funny."
Albee is asked what his best play is. "I hope I haven't written it yet," he replies. "I wouldn't want to think that it wasn't still ahead of me."