What's It All About, Albee?

I mentioned in a previous column that this quote is attributed to Eugene O'Neill: "The artist who tries to save the world loses himself." I'd like to add that, in the case of Edward Albee, the artist who tries to save himself loses his art. Desperate to retain his former status as dramatic genius, Albee now writes so self-consciously I can almost hear him sweat. Several students in my writing classes already know how to avoid employing the contrivances and indulgences Albee seems to seek and use shamelessly.

Even without knowing about the playwright's stark appearance on Key Biscayne this past winter, people barely acquainted with theater recognize his name. Twice he was a Pulitzer Prize winner -- for A Delicate Balance in 1967 and Seascape in 1976 -- but Albee's most celebrated work remains the definitive portrait of a confrontational marriage: the 1962 masterwork, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Marriage Play, which debuted at Vienna's English Theater in 1987 and now comes to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Albee again looks at marital distress through the use of metaphor, word games, and one-upmanship, but this time without plot and thoroughly without dramatic tension.

What many people may not know is that Albee in recent years fell out of favor, not just with the critical community but with audiences. According to scores of interviews, he conveniently blames this topple on the shallow nature of current commercial productions and popular bad taste. But oddly enough, our collective moronic mind hasn't crowded out Pinter or Mamet, or new craftsmen like Baitz and Cartwright.

Albee's paranoia and intellectual conceit characterize Marriage Play, basically a tedious polemic between an unfaithful husband moaning through midlife crisis and his sarcastic wife of 30 years. He comes home and says he's leaving; she taunts him with a diary of their lovemaking and hints that she, too, may have enjoyed the attention of others. Welcome to George and Martha of Virginia Woolf minus the passion, the audacity, and the high stakes -- Virginia Woolf itself with no story, no innocent visitors, no mysterious child. In other words, welcome to nothing.

A theatrical scholar sitting beside me during the play suggested that the play may be metaphorical, representing the divorce between Albee (the wife) and his writing body (the husband). Even if that were the case, so what, and who cares? The characters don't learn anything, the audience is given nothing to feel, and everyone becomes a prisoner of bad-Beckett lingo.

At a luncheon earlier this year at the Brickell Avenue Literary Society, Albee explained he'd started out as a poet, kept failing at it, but changed direction when Thornton Wilder suggested he stick to drama. Yet his heart obviously still pines for purple verse. Such lines as "[the] vacancy in our bed will mean nothing" or "I long to live by instinct" represent the average groaner that passes for dialogue in one act. Albee's sharp wit has also wilted through the years. "You're barely brighter than a gazelle or a frying pan," the husband snaps. Take that, Dennis Miller.

Other ridiculous artifices include the shallow yuppie couple's comparing each other's lines to imitations of D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Hemingway, and Alexander Pope. I don't even know of Ph.D.'s who wouldn't be laughed out of an English department for such pretense.

The miniature, minimal set and lights suit the play. But the use of lots of black and white, a cube, a couch, and brightness annoy the audience. In fact, the only person I admire in the entire production is director Arnold Mittelman, who managed to stage this nonstarter with at least some interesting activities (which don't include the overchoreographed fight scene). The characters, played by original cast members Tom Klunis and Kathleen Butler, suffer from both stilted verbiage and lack of concrete events, but the actors also contribute their own blunders: Klunis sounds a singular whining note, and Butler's emotional intensity is pushed way past the point of believability.

The marriage itself smacks of a playwright who knows nothing of marriage. Showing no intimacy or connection, the premise is too glib and bitchy in claiming that 30 years together can end like this. Like it or not, Ed, long unions contain much more substance, the same way most women are less witchy than they may seem to you.

John Lennon, in describing how he wrote so many hit songs in one year, claimed that for a period of time, some artists become conduits for the Universal Mind. Then one day the connection breaks and moves on to someone else. It certainly did with Lennon's songwriting partner Paul McCartney. Perhaps someone should hint to Albee that the link no longer exists for him, and trying harder won't bring it back. J.D. Salinger and Sugar Ray Leonard showed the good sense to retire, Ali didn't. Take note Albee, before you plan another false move.

MARRIAGE PLAY by Edward Albee, directed by Arnold Mittelman; with Kathleen Butler and Tom Klunis. At the Encore Room of the Coconut Grove Playhouse (3500 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove) through January 31. Tickets cost $23-$29. Performance times vary weekly; call 442-4000 for more information.

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