Byline: Holly Haber
HOUSTON — When Edward Albee was only five, he had his first taste of the theater watching Jimmy Durante play opposite a live elephant in “Jumbo.”
“It was really exciting,” he says. “I got very fond of live theater. But then I decided to fail at every other branch of writing before I became a playwright.”
Three Pulitzer Prizes, one Tony and numerous other accolades later, Albee is currently at Houston’s Alley Theatre directing the American premiere of his latest work, “The Play About the Baby.”
It’s the story of a naive young couple with a newborn child and an older couple who are out to snatch the infant away. As it tells the tale, the play offers a string of ruminations on existence, reality, truth, desire and pain, and there’s no happy ending.
“I am concerned with the fact that people lie to themselves and lie to each other,” says the playwright on the morning after the first dress rehearsal. “People live lives that are too safe and get entrenched in things they think they believe that they don’t re-examine. They go around spouting stuff they haven’t thought about in 20 years that they don’t believe anymore.”
When “The Play About the Baby” premiered in London, some critics postulated that the baby in the title didn’t really exist, a point that irks Albee.
“Some of the reviews assumed that any play I write about a baby must be about a false baby,” he declares. “They say, ‘Oh, well, it’s Virginia Woolf all over again,’ which is nonsense and damaging to people’s experience of the play. I think any time people go to the theater they should see the first play they’ve ever seen. When Tennessee was alive and I used to go see his plays, I didn’t do my homework and try to remember all the other plays he’d written to see how they’d relate to this one. I’d wipe the slate clean. It’s possible to do that, but most people don’t.”
Albee is reluctant to offer any explanation of “The Play About the Baby,” acknowledging that it’s mysterious but insisting that audiences make up their own minds.
“It’s about everything that happens. Any play whose meaning you can figure out in one or two sentences should be one or two sentences long.”
The issue of truth is raised repeatedly in the script as the characters weave in and out of their understanding of what has and hasn’t happened. As one of the characters declares, “What’s true and what’s not is a tricky business.”
Says Albee, “Everybody has his own truth — that’s one of the problems. There are no absolute truths. Coveting your neighbor’s wife — of course you should — if you covet her you covet her, right?”
Albee is at work on his next play — “a shocker,” he says, with the working title of “Who is Sylvia?” — and is also curating an exhibition of the work of nine American sculptors at a Virginia university. This isn’t his first venture as a curator. In 1998 Albee, who collects art himself, mounted a show of five young artists and called it “Five Young Artists Who Aren’t Well-Enough Known in Houston Yet.”
Albee naturally has strong opinions about the state of theater as well.
“The people who own the theaters control what we see, and they won’t even give a serious play one of their theaters unless they think it’s going to make a lot of money,” he observes. “It’s a form of censorship. So people who care about theater must go to the regional theaters like the Alley or they must go off-off Broadway to the cellars. That’s the way it was back in the Fifties. When I wanted to go see Beckett and Ionesco and Genet you couldn’t find them on Broadway, you went to the cellars, and that is still true. Nothing much changes, it just gets more so. There’s money to be made in underestimating the taste of an audience.”