It is, perhaps, a warning that when a play begins with a character reading a book, what follows is likely to be more literature than drama. In the current run of "Albee Directs Albee" at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater four of the short plays are introduced with this refinement and share a lack of action which must be purposeful.
Last night's bill, to be repeated tonight and Sunday night, consisted of a quartet: "Fam and Yam" and "The Sandbox," both of 1959, and "Box" and "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung," both of 1968. This is the most interesting of the four current combinations, showing the earliest and the intermediary forms of Albee's work which have led to his purest phase of abstractions.
"Box/Mao/Box" was the initial billing for this second half of the program, wherein a female voice-over, heard above a gigantic empty box, warns that "when art begins to hurt, it's time to look around." Then follows a scene of a woman on shipboard musing aloud about her approaching death. Two voices at the side of the action (more accurately, inaction) are heard in contrasting statements while, from above, the voice of "Box" repeats the initial monologue.
Chairman Mao's statements include a presently more jarring remark about war: "It depends on aggression for profits," which now suggests something different from what it did 11 years ago. The other quotes, through an old woman, are those of Will Carleton, the Michigan farm balladeer whose "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse" sold, in 1873, a sensational 40,000 copies. The juxtapositions, the woman's ramblings to a silent minister and the reiterated "Box" comments form an arresting abstract.
Consuming a mere 20 minutes to the second half's 75, the '59 plays are mere anecdotes, "The Sandbox" being a warm-up for "The American Dream," which followed the next year, and "Fam and Yam," an interview by a young playwright of an old one. Its line, "I think the continuum is so important," proves sadly relevant.
Now that Albee has had his directorial fling, one hopes he will get back to that full-length play for the last act of which producer Richard Barr has been so impatiently waiting.