In his plays, Edward Albee exposes the dark underside of the dysfunctional American family, but the man himself is actually an amiable, unthreatening sort, whose tweed coat and practical shoes give him the appearance of a biology professor on some sleepy New England campus. There's little reason to be afraid of Edward Albee: In fact, he can be a charming and engaging luncheon companion -- if you know the rules.
First, don't presume, like all those pesky critics, that his characters embody his personal values and views.
Don't attempt, like all those meddling directors, to impose gender-bending changes on his sacrosanct scripts.
Do understand irony.
And if at all possible, eat your vegetables. Mr. Albee, you see, is a firm believer in participating fully in life -- and, in this case, that includes lunch. So clean your plate.
He does just that during an afternoon conversation over a meal at a local fish eatery. And he offers food for thought about his Pulitzer-winning play "Three Tall Women," which will play Washington's Kennedy Center Nov. 7 through Dec. 3 and the Mechanic Theatre Feb. 28 through March 10.
In the achingly honest play, three characters named simply A, B and C represent the same woman at different stages of life. The youngest still believes in possibility; at middle age, she accepts that she has settled for a life with a less-than-faithful husband; at death's door, she is serenely ready for the end.
It's no secret that the play is about Mr. Albee's own adoptive mother, who disowned him, disinherited him and disapproved of him. Mr. Albee, 67, admits there are certain parallels to real life in "Three Tall Women," but he grows exasperated with autobiographical analyses of his plays. "She is an old woman. She is talking about her life. Why does everyone have to translate that into the playwright's intention?" he asks, pausing and then cheerfully changing the subject.
"You're not eating anything," he says, gesturing at his interviewer's untouched plate.
Whomever the play is about, it poignantly portrays a woman who was taught to expect one thing yet receives another thing entirely. "You don't tell us that things change," the middle-aged woman says, "that Prince Charming has the morals of a sewer rat, that you're supposed to live with that and like it, or give the appearance of liking it."
To Mr. Albee, that particular bit is a testament to self-awareness. "This play is about people not lying to themselves," he says. "She is aware that those are the rules of the time, and that's better than not acknowledging it."
For several decades, Mr. Albee has written plays that show that the rules are not always fair, that the reality of family values is not necessarily all happy hearth and home sweet home. Partly as a result, his early work was categorized as the Theater of the Absurd, but in his view, his plays present a realistic portrayal of family life.
The world he depicted 30 years ago, he says, is only getting worse. "We still treat our old people very badly. We still destroy our kids by trying to turn them into carbon copies of ourselves. We are governed by knaves and fools. Every time you write a play, you think you portray a situation that people will try to change. Unfortunately, I haven't seen that happen."
Mr. Albee drew his own conclusions about family values early on. Two weeks after birth, he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee, wealthy socialites who raised him in upscale Larchmont, N.Y. It was hate at first sight. "As young as I can remember, I despised their values," Mr. Albee says. "They were right-wing. They were bigots. I didn't like them at all."
What he did like was the theater, after he saw a production of the Rodgers and Hart musical "Jumbo" that featured both an elephant and Jimmy Durante. At 12 1/2 , he wrote a three-act sex farce called "Aliqueen"; his mother, he says, threw it out. And the budding playwright also managed to get himself thrown out of a string of prep schools, as well as Trinity College in Connecticut, horrifying mother dearest.
Mr. Albee left home for good at 19, traveling 25 miles in distance yet 2,000 miles in mind-set from Larchmont to Greenwich Village. He took odd jobs, working as an office boy, a book salesman and a Western Union messenger. In 1958, he wrote "The Zoo Story."
That play was followed by a spurt of creativity: "The Death of Bessie Smith" and "The American Dream" received accolades in 1961. Then came "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1962, which appalled some and enthralled others. In 1966, "A Delicate Balance" won the Pulitzer Prize.
Much has been written about what happened next. In 1975, "Seascape" won another Pulitzer, but it lasted only 65 performances in New York. In 1986, "The Man Who Had Three Arms" closed just as soon as it opened. Some have said that Mr. Albee catapulted to early stardom, only to be eclipsed by mid-career obscurity. "Not true," he says. During the years his work was not seen in New York, he was writing plays (24 to date) and getting them produced in Europe, as well as teaching at the University of Houston. Nonetheless, when a small off-Broadway company called the Signature Theatre mounted a season of his works in 1993, much was made of his "return" to the stage.
Does that bother him?
"What, that I was getting plays produced?" He laughs, and then turns the tables yet again.
"You're not eating anything."
In his own career, Mr. Albee has not allowed producers to dictate his artistic decisions. He resisted attempts to censor "Virginia Woolf" in Boston and London. (In England, he says, he ignored the office of the Lord Chamberlain, whose role was to "censor plays in case the queen ever left the stable grounds to go to the theater.") He usually directs the first productions of his plays and has been known to prohibit all-male productions of "Virginia Woolf" and all-female versions of "Zoo Story" -- although he did allow one gender-bender version of the latter, provided it was titled "Variations on Edward Albee's Play 'The Zoo Story.' "
He dismisses the notion that "Virginia Woolf" is a gay fantasy as "preposterous nonsense." He says, "I've never heard of a gay relationship with an hysterical pregnancy."
He also breathes fire over attempts to pigeonhole him as a "gay playwright." He shares his days with his partner of 26 years, visual artist Jonathan Thomas, but "I don't go around waving banners," he says. "I don't go around saying, 'Hey, I'm male. Hey, I'm gay. Hey, I'm a writer.' "
He does go around saying that his plays should be produced the way he wrote them. Only once, he says, has he seen producers savage his work, and that was with his 1981 version of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." "It was a shambles of a shame," he says.
Today, Mr. Albee isn't shy about criticizing what he sees as attempts to defuse and commercialize the American theater, and that includes Broadway, the regional theater and developmental workshops.
Mr. Albee is also miffed at what he sees as gratuitous nudity on stage, bared by such productions as David Dillon's "Party" and Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" He says, "Too often, nudity is there to sell tickets, to shock. If it's not organic, it is gratuitous -- although it's hard to think of nonorganic nudity."
Well, while we're on the subject, what about that incident in 1992, when Mr. Albee was charged with indecent exposure for appearing nude on a Florida beach? He says he was changing his bathing suit when the vice squad descended; the charges were later dropped. "The interesting thing about that case was that there was a great deal of publicity when I was arrested, less when I took it to court and practically none when I was found innocent. Isn't that curious." A pause. "He said ironically."
The man is a master of irony, of the perfect one-liner, of the appropriately punctuated pause. By trade, he practices the fine art of communication, even though his characters choose not to make essential human connections. "I write about people who are very articulate about choosing not to communicate," he says. "They lie to themselves. They can communicate, but they don't."
And that is the great tragedy of "Three Tall Women." In real life, Mr. Albee initiated a reconciliation with his mother before she died, but mother and child never became close. They broke bread but never broke down walls built over a lifetime of mutual distaste.
How terribly sad. But in the play called life, Mr. Albee is anything but disengaged. "I don't think we should go around being idiotically happy, but I think we should fully participate in our lives," he says. That includes acknowledging death.
"If you trick yourself into thinking that you're going to live forever, then there's time for everything. That's why so many people end up at the end of their lives never having lived."
That philosophy resonates in "Three Tall Women." The middle-aged character says, "Make 'em aware that they're dying from the minute they're alive."
But this is getting too close to the bone, refusing to separate the playwright from the play. "I think plays should be analyzed as a reality experience and not thought of as how they relate to the playwright," Mr. Albee says. "In theory, all plays should be produced with no one knowing who wrote them."
He once wrote a play called "Box" and sent it under a pseudonym to his own production company. It was rejected. This is funny. It makes Mr. Albee laugh. He might try it again.
But for now, he is busy creating his next opus, called "The Play About the Baby." All he will say is that it features two men and two women. The subject is closed. He, for one, has successfully participated in the act of eating lunch. And now it's time to get back to the drawing board.