IF PLAYWRIGHT Edward Albee depended on the kindness of critics these days, he would probably be lying in some dark alley, semi-comatose and caked with dried blood.

Although he has written 16 plays since commanding overnight attention with "The Zoo Story" in 1959, and has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, he remains in the eyes of many critics the man who asked the world "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and never again came up with half so riveting a dramatic question.

It is a fairly common practice in criticism to put a playwright on a pedestal on the promise of a single play, only to send him toppling to the dust on the evidence of the next. In Albee's case, the rise and fall have been particularly exaggerated. In the early 1960s, he was hailed as the virtual savior of the American theater. Last year, when his most recent play, an adaptation of Nabokov's novel, "Lolita," opened on Broadway, The New York Times felt compelled to note that not only had Albee abandoned his gifts, but he had "forsaken the humane impulse that is the minimal, rock bottom essential of art."

"I have been both overpraised and underpraised. I assume by the time I finish writing -- and I plan to go on writing until I'm 90 or gaga -- it will all equal itself out," comments Albee, who, at 53, still has some distance to cover. "You can't involve yourself with the vicissitudes of fashion or critical response. I'm fairly confident that my work is going to be around for a while. I am pleased and reassured by the fact that a lot of younger playwrights seem to pay me some attention and gain some nourishment from what I do."

This particular morning, Albee is dressed in faded jeans, a flannel shirt and work boots. His hair, not quite shoulder length, and his droopy gunslinger's mustache combine to give him the look of a slightly perverse denizen of Marlboro country. He converses mostly in a low-pitched mumble, a tone similar to that taken by excessively bashful adolescents and irritable chairmen of the board.

"Maybe I've got a survival mechanism built into me," he says, stretching out his legs and locking his hands behind his neck, thereby increasing the impression of lankiness. "I survive almost any onslaught with a shrug, which must appear as arrogance, but really isn't, because I'm not an arrogant person. When you write a play, you make a set of assumptions -- that you have something to say, that you know how to say it, that it's worth saying, and that maybe someone will come along for the ride. That's all. And then you go about your business, assuming you'd be the first to know if your talent had collapsed.

"I don't think I've been a commercial playwright ever. By some curious mischance, a couple of my plays managed to hit an area where commercial success was feasible. But it's wrong to think I'm a commercial playwright who has somehow ceased his proper function. I have always been the same thing -- which is not a commercial playwright. I'm not after the brass ring. I very seldom get it anyway, and then it's accidental when I do.... So I write those things that interest me."

I've been to the zoo. I said, I've been to the zoo. MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!

JERRY, "THE ZOO STORY"

MIDSTREAM, which is where he puts it, Albee's career is a paradox. Despite what he calls "the ritual slaughter of Albee" each time he unveils a new play, he remains one of the key reference points of the American theater. On the basis of such plays as "Tiny Alice" or "All Over," he is judged to be dour and hermetic, and yet his work is, as he himself puts it, "funnier than it's not."

"Virginia Woolf" made him a wealthy man, and that "economic leeway," he points out, freed him "from having to go around writing 'Son of Virginia Woolf.'" With almost predictable regularity, however, everything he turns out these days, is measured against "Virginia Woolf" and, when it fails to conform, is found lacking. Albee's last commercially successful work on Broadway was "A Delicate Balance," 15 years ago, and he complains that Broadway today simply can't tolerate plays of any complexity or depth -- meaning, among others, his. But he also notes that "every play of mine I thought should be produced on Broadway has been produced on Broadway," adding "mostly because of Richard Barr."

Barr's loyalty goes back to the beginning. He produced "Zoo Story" off-Broadway and has since brought nearly all of Albee's major plays to Broadway. Understandably, if no less passionately, he defends his author against the rampant charges of burnout. "I think Edward's got his best play still in him," he says. "There's nothing the matter with his talent. As a matter of fact, he's more alive and interested in everything around him than he was when I first met him in 1959. He's focusing in a way I haven't seen in years. Literarily, socially, he's making himself a part of the world he's in. In 1959, he was Peck's Bad Boy, and I don't think there's a bit of that now. He's really a much wiser human being."

For Barr, it's merely a question of "the critics just not being as bright as Edward is. His reputation is still very big -- in Europe, in regional theaters, everywhere but on Broadway. Without going into a long dissertation. Edward was the first playwright to say that people invent their own illusion to give themselves a reality. And his characters are aware of it.... A Blanche DuBois doesn't know she's living an illusion. But Edward's characters -- certainly those in 'Virginia Woolf,' and 'Tiny Alice' -- are aware they're creating the illusion themselves. That's the giant step. The awareness was what was new."

In the best of all worlds, or at least the best of all of Albee's worlds, the playwright envisions a Broadway theater "filled with Aristophanes, Chekhov, Beckett, Shakespeare, Pirandello and Brecht, plus me now and again, and a lot of other people. But that isn't the way it works for a number of reasons, many of them economic. I hate to attack another playwright. It's tough enough for us all. But let's just say that I lament the fact that the middlebrow is now what passes for excellence in the theater. It's conceivable that in 10 years no straight play of any real worth will be done in the New York commercial theater. Since most people take their clues about the nature of American theater from Broadway, I worry about the misinformation that is passed along to out younger playwrights."

Undaunted, Albee continues to write a play a year. The actual writing takes him "about three months." The thinking takes longer. At any given time he may be carrying three or four plays around in his head. Along with Tennessee Williams and Lanford Wilson, he has been commissioned to write a drama for the New World Festival of Arts, to be held in Miami this June. His contribution will be a three-character work entitled "The Man Who Had Three Arms."

"It's about a man who had three arms," he offers by way of explanation. Given the troubles he had finding the right nymphet for "Lolita," he is asked if this won't pose even greater difficulties.

"Well, as I said, he used to have three arms."

So maybe he has only two arms when the curtain goes up?

"Unless someone comes into the casting call who fills the bill perfectly," he says, lapsing into a silence.

Albee never begins the actual writing until he is covinced that each of his characters has developed a vital identity and a voice of his own. One of his methods of testing them is to go for long walks on the beach at Montauk, Long Island, where he maintains a sleek summer home. "I take some of the characters I plan to have in the play along with me. Then I think up a situation that isn't in the play. If I can improvise on-the-spur dialogue for the characters in this new situation, then I feel that I know them well enough to go ahead and put them down on paper.

"It is very dangerous, whenever you sit down to write a new play, to think about how it is going to relate to what you have already done. So I try very hard not to dwell on continuity, progression. Oh, I reread my plays. Not a lot, though. I look at them with a kind of... mild... curiosity. I possess them, but they no longer possess me."

Time. Time happens, I suppose. To people. Everything becomes... too late, finally. You know it's going on... up on the hill; you can see the dust, and hear the cries, and the steel... but you wait; and time happens. When you do go, sword, shield... finally... there's nothing there... save rust; bones; and the wind.

Agnes, "a delicate balance/"

IF BROADWAY has proved increasingly inhospitable to Albee's talents, he is still a familiar presence in the country's regional theaters and to an even greater degree, on college and university campuses. Ironically, his earliest plays, "Zoo Story" and "The American Dream" are the most frequently done, but "Virginia Woolf" is regularly revived, as is "A Delicate Balance," which won him his first Pulitzer.

The latter will be getting a major revival at Arena Stage, opening Thursday, with Robert Prosky and Myra Carter in the roles originally created by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It is Albee's study of Agnes and Tobias, well-bred, prosperous New Englanders, who find the tenuous truces and the fragile relationships of a lifetime jeopardized when their neighbors show up on the doorstep, fleeing an unnamed terror and demanding sanctuary.

For Zelda Fichandler, who is directing the production, it is "my favorite of all of Albee's plays, more complex than 'Virginia Woolf' and maybe less accessible, but the one that moves me the most." It is what she calls "an autumn play," about older characters who have side stepped truth and their real passions and settled for a web of interlocking dependencies.

And for Albee? He reflects. "At the time, I was interested by the amount of misunderstanding it provoked. Of course, I'm often misunderstood, which always surprises me because I don't think I have a terribly complicated mind. What I write is perfectly clear to anybody who is willing to perceive it. I've always believed the difficulty most people have in perceiving things lies no in the complexity of those things, but in people's unwillingness to participate. Most misunderstanding is intentional.

"Originally, much of the critical high school -- I was going to say the critical college -- viewed 'A Delicate Balance' as a play about the demands and responsibilities of friendship. I certainly didn't. I thought it was basically about the fact that we become rigid through disuse and that the opportunity for making choices vanishes ultimately. What Agnes says in the third act. Of course, plays are about more than one thing, and that's a simplification. But it does seem to be about how we compromise our abilities away."

He pauses, smiles, taking pleasure from the past. "I do remember I had a good time writing 'A Delicate Balance.'" The simile is engaging, but just as quickly as it can light up his face, it can also vanish without a trace.

ABOUT FIVE years ago, Albee gave up his Fifth Avenue address -- and the posh East Side of Manhattan he calls Fancyville -- to move into a former cheese warehouse within shouting distance of the World Trade Center. The nondescript biilding is tucked between a couple of food co-ops. The entrance is from the loading dock, and a hand-lettered sign above the battered metal door asks the neighbors kindly to keep their garbage off the premises.

The creaky freight elevator that jerks its way up through a drafty shaft gives no indication of what lies on the top two floors: Polished oak floors, lined with cork, running 75 feet from front to back; solid brick walls two-feet thick; nearly 6,000 square feet of living space.

Loft hardly seems the right word for Albee's domain. It looks more like a museum lobby, furnished with a kind of cool, elegant formalism that also characterizes such plays of his as "Listening" and "Counting the Ways." Tuxedo couches stand at either end of a teak Korean bed, which has been converted into a gigantic coffee table. An oak banquet table defines the dining area. The walls bear witness to Albee's collector instincts -- paintings by Kandinsky, Milton Avery, Vuillard -- as do the liberal spotting of abstract sculpture, a pair of ceremonial drums, and even a wooden doorjamb from a Pygmy's hut in New Guinea.

"Edward is a man of tremendous civilization," says actress Irene Worth, who created the enigmatic title characters of both "Tiny Alice" and "The Lady From Dubuque." "He has a profound taste for works of art.He's a fantastic dook and has a great knowledge of fine wines. And he's a very giving person. I think we share a common attitude toward life and the arts, although I've never discussed it with him and never would. Words spoil things."

"I just surround myself with things I like," Albee says simply. "Some of then are very good. Some, I suppose, are mistakes. Most of them tend to be abstract and have something to do with geometry, which may tie in with my interest in contrapuntal music. I wanted to be a composer when I was 11 or 12. When I discovered Mozart. Whenever that was. But I was too lazy. I always think I'm writing a string quartet when I'm writing a play. It's the same aural experience, and you have to be as precise in your notation."

There is a lavishly appointed office on the premises, with 20-foot book shelves, a skylight to let in the milky Manhattan light, and a handsome 19th-century French desk, given to the playwright by his mother. Most of the time, Albee admits with a touch of embarrassment, he composes his plays on a typewriter on the kitchen table.

"I write only when I think I have something to say. Judging from the plays that are successful these days, maybe I should write only when I have nothing to say."

In the outskirts of Dubuque, on the farm, when I was growing up -- back there, back then -- I learned, with all the pigs and chickens and the endless sameness everywhere you looked, or thought, back there I learned -- though I doubt I knew I was learning it -- that all of the values were relative save one... "Who am I?" All the rest is semantics -- liberty, dignity, possession. There's only one that matters: "Who am I?"

ELIZABETH, "THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE"

THE WRITING is complemented professionally by a fairly active lecture schedule on the college circuit, where Albee tells "a few jokes, a few lies and a lot of truth." One of his recurrent themes is "the mutual responsibility of the people who make art and the people who receive it." He also has his "official" duties, as a member of the New York State Council on the Arts, the Dramatists Guild, and the six-man directorate of Lincoln Center, although that last position seems to have been put on hold, while the Vivian Beaumont Theater undergoes remodeling.

An inveterate New Yorker, Albee rises early. "I like to go to museums, art galleries. Wander about the city," he admits. "I have a number of close friends. And a lot of acquaintances. But I lkie to be alone a lot, too. I have to have some time for myself every day, some long uninterrupted periods, where I don't have to deal with people at all. I'm gregarious... and I'm not."

No one would say that Albee has completely mended his peremptory manner. He found Donald Sutherland's behavior reprehensible during the brief run of "Lolita" and was so vocal about it that he has since been cautioned by Sutherland's lawyer not to discuss the actor in public at all. When Barr and his six co-producers closed "The Lady From Dubuque" after 12 performances in 1980, Albee, in a fit of pique, referred to them as "the seven dwarfs."

But he can also turn the barbs on himself. Recollecting his work on the ill-fated musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Albee says, "Oh, yeah, that was fun. I took a show that would have been a mild failure with an eight-month run on Broadway and turned it into an outright commercial disaster." (It closed in previews.)

He likes to joke about his "very interesting relationship with Hollywood," which consists of Hollywood occasionally paying him large sums of money for a screenplay, which never gets produced."There is one simplification I would like to bring to this relationship, however. They should commission me to write a movie and pay me a great deal of money. But I would not have to write it, since they have no intention of producing it anyway.... Of course, I'd like to reach a lot of people with a movie, but the writer doesn't have the final say in films as he does on the stage. Legitimate actors can't go around changing my text all that much... unless they're Donald Sutherland."

Albee gulps in mock surprise -- "I didn't say that, did I?" -- chuckles softly, then looks up to see if the joke is shared. He has not entirely divested himself of the protective spines of the past, perhaps, but he's more relaxed, more ingratiating, more openly hospitable than he's been in a decade.

"Many are surprised to find I'm still alive," he says. "I've only been writing plays for 22 years. But people keep saying to me, especially ladies on the lecture circuit, 'Gee, I thought you'd be a much older man.' I tell them that if I keep hearing that, I will be.

"I used to treat myself far worse than I do now. I used to drink a lot, smoke, and not take care of myself. Now I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I lift weights." The boy wonder of the American theater -- middle-aged, but not so badly off for that -- smiles another of his enigmatic smiles.

"Getting younger all the time," he boasts.