In the relatively recent conflict between dramatist and director, playwright Edward Albee now has the prominence to take his stand as director of his own works. With 31-year-old Mark Hall Amitin as producer, "Albee Directs Albee" last night opened a two-week run of four assorted Albee one-acters in the Kennedy Center's handsome, stimulating new Terrace Theater.
The first program was "The American Dream" and "The Zoo Story," to be repeated tonight. "Counting the Ways" and "Listening" will be introduced tomorrow night. The repertory will be varied Saturday night with "Counting the Ways" and "The Zoo Story," and Tuesday brings forth the fourth variation: "Fam and Yam," "The Sandbox," "Box" and "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung."
"Zoo" makes a fitting beginning, for it put Albee on the European theatrical map in 1958, after which it came to New York.
While his greatest success, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", is in the realistic metier, Albee has let it be understood, through interviews, that his intention has been abstract drama. Such later plays as "Box" and "Mao" have strengthened that conviction.
One, then, goes back to "Zoo" to see it in the abstract sense. One assumes that, as director, Albee has chosen his own players and dictated the play's abstract design, created by Karl Eigsti. The accent is on the words which, clearly, are this playwright's primary concern.
Stephen Rowe, as the hustler in "Zoo," and Wyman Pendleton, as the publisher, are clear and vigorous with Albee's words, and the brooding menace of this Central Park grand guignol is made to rest solely on the words.
As director, Albee -- purposefully, I suppose -- keeps his players in a straightjacket. Their movement is constricted and often outwardly directed. The intention seems to be the opposite of the realism created originally by William Daniels and Ben Piazza.
This impression strengthens that made by the evening's opener, "The American Dream." Here Albee lines up his five players in an almost even row, varying them with the three-quarter position musical stars take for incipient song numbers. The color of Eigsti's paneled set is more pastel, gentler; and the lighting, as in "Zoo" is unvarying: sharp, bright.
All this does not enhance the plays, which I've seen performed more effectively on college stages. Albee, I suspect, owes much of his early American appeal to Alan Schneider, who was to do so well by "Virginia Woolf." That Albee and the several "Tiny Alice" directors never did agree about that work foreshadowed his evident obsession with how his plays are presented. I find it relevant that William Ball's theatrical staging of "Tiny Alice," which Albee deplored, was the finest rendering of that difficult play I have seen.
In this casting, Albee relies in this first bill on Rowe, but Rowe lacks the skill to differentiate between the young man who is "The American young man who is "The American Dream" and the Central Park drifter who comes on in "Zoo." Rowe plays both youths in the same menacing tone, with gestures and expressions traceable to early Brando.
As for Patricia Kilgarriff as "Dream's" Mommy, a line from that play is pertinent: "You have the rhythm but you don't have the quality," says Granny to Mommy. Kilgarriff's vowel sounds, precise and faintly Australian-British, and her West End rhythm suggest she has the acting quality but not the American middleclass rhythm on which Albee is heaping such scorn.
Sudie Bond, who created the grannies of both "Dream" and "Sandbox," is a strength of the company, as is Pendleton, whose chief task is to make passivity interesting.
As his own director, then, Albee serves himself poorly in theatrical terms. Since he seeks the abstract, that is his business and one cannot deny him his opportunity to direct. But these plays suggest that he was well served by his earliest American director and that the abstract will afford him only a narrow gauge of dramatic effectiveness.