Edward Albee's Mindscape

The acclaimed playwright (and part-time Coconut Grove resident) remains an unparalleled observer of our culture -- and a genuine stickler for details

The young Albee, according to Wright, was extremely shy when dealing with people, though never reticent when it came to his work, and as meticulous then as he is now in his attention to details. "He can look at a set and say, 'That's an eighth of an inch not horizontal,' and sure enough the carpenter or the prop man will go and measure it and it's an eighth of an inch off."

Along with Albee, Wright was part of a theatrical team that included director Alan Schneider, set designer William Ritman, and producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder. The late Fifties and early Sixties, Wright says, "were an explosive time because we were all doing something extraordinarily different. We didn't realize it then but it was the beginning of off-Broadway." Albee, Barr, and Wilder operated a theater in the Sixties that produced cutting-edge noncommercial work. They also hosted the New Playwrights' Unit Workshop in a rented space, where aspiring playwrights could work on low-budget productions of their work: Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones), Adrienne Kennedy, Sam Shepard, John Guare all found shelter there.

Albee continued his nurturance of young talent when he founded the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Person's Center (otherwise known as the Barn) on property adjacent to the home he keeps in Montauk, New York. Since its inception more than 30 years ago, the Barn has awarded monthlong residencies to writers and visual artists in need of a quiet place to pursue serious work.

Wright notes that Schneider, Ritman, Barr, and Wilder all died in the Eighties. "They're gone. It's just Edward and me," he muses, acknowledging the depth of the loss of such a creative family. "I'm sure it has affected him as deeply as it has me. But you go on. As Edward says often in his plays, 'You go on.'"

In 1988 Albee accepted a professorship in the theater department of the University of Houston. He spends the spring semester in that city, living in the same rented apartment every year. He selects his students carefully. "I wanted to choose students I thought I could help by making their plays closer to what they intended. I don't want to change them, to make them more commercial or anything of that sort. Let's make them exactly what the playwright intended, not what he should have intended. Writing is not a collaborative act."

Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. An irreproachably blue-skied Miami day. The coffee is on in Albee's compact, sunny house, which is ringed by a wooden fence and a maze of small outdoor decks in a tranquil South Grove neighborhood. Glass walls bookend the central room, a combined living and dining area. Through one wall of glass, a gardener and an assistant can be seen rooting about in tall grass under the tropical trees Albee has planted over the years. Houseguests have been coming and going all week, but this morning only his tenant, a friend who lives in the house year-round, goes quietly in and out.

Sparsely furnished in simple lines, the house has an open, airy feel, a place in which one can think clearly and breathe easily. A vase of orchids and a bowl of bananas and oranges accent the sense of order and peace. African and contemporary art hangs on the walls, sits on shelves, stands on the floor -- a sampling of Albee's extensive collection of works by artists both known and unknown.

"That is a whole other side to Edward," notes his friend, art dealer Bianca Lanza, who first encountered Albee when he visited her former gallery in SoHo. Several years later, having left New York for South Beach, where she opened the Bianca Lanza Gallery off Lincoln Road, she ran into the playwright-art collector again. "He walked in and I recognized him immediately. We got into a conversation, and he started coming to the gallery every time he was in Miami. He had a wonderful characteristic of going into the back room just to peer in, and he'd find things that were hidden that he liked.

"He has a loft in New York that is spectacular," she goes on. "A vast two-story space full of art. His tastes tend to be pretty black-and-white and pretty minimal. And then he likes African art, and he combines things. You'll see something on the floor and you don't know whether it's a contemporary thing or something primitive, because his tastes all blend together in a very cohesive way. Then he has the place in Montauk, on the ocean, and that is full of art inside and sculptures outdoors. It's a very wonderful setting."

The contrast between Albee's often unremittingly fierce writing and his apparently tranquil home life recalls a Gustave Flaubert quotation: "Be regular and ordinary in your life ... so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Albee, who has written about the ravages, the compromises, and the poignancies of married life with scathing accuracy in play after play, has been in a relationship with a male artist for 27 years, and he doesn't see a great deal of difference between heterosexual and homosexual partnerships. "Except for kids," he says. "But aside from that there shouldn't be. People should be together whoever they are because they like being together and because it's good for both of them. Maybe there's less husband-wife role playing between two males in a homosexual relationship or two women in a lesbian relationship, but I don't think there's a huge amount of difference, except in society's eyes."

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