R.I.P.: Edward Albee

September 18, 2016

Edward Albee, the great American playwright who died last week at the age of 88, had one of the weirdest lives of any famous American writer. Adopted as an infant by a wealthy couple, Albee grew up in WASP splendor. He was driven to Broadway shows as a child in one of the family’s two Rolls-Royces, and every winter the clan decamped from the New York suburb of Larchmont to Palm Beach, traveling to Florida in his grandmother’s two private railroad cars hooked to the back of a passenger train. Lavished with money but emotionally frozen out by his pallid father and “dragon lady” mother, Albee fled the family at 20, spent a decade fumbling around Greenwich Village, and emerged at 30 a full-fledged playwright with 1959’s The Zoo Story, an existential encounter between two strangers on a park bench.

Over the next six years, he had four more enormous successes, none greater than the 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play for which he will always be best known. This remarkable explosion of literary talent — all the more amazing for being dyspeptic, intellectually challenging, anything but warm and fuzzy — was followed by nearly 20 years of serious drinking and a string of increasingly mediocre plays. And then, just when it was time for him to die of an overdose or something, Albee zoomed back to prominence in 1994 with Three Tall Women, for which he was awarded his third Pulitzer Prize for drama. That play was an astonishingly gracious and poignant character study of the imperious, bigoted mother who insulted his friends, snubbed his lovers, and ultimately disinherited him because he is gay. This triumph launched a sweet late stage of Albee’s career, which included a number of minor playful new scripts, several major revivals, and one substantial new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which won the Tony Award for best play in 2002.

I saw most of Albee’s work – the good, the bad, and the medium – and wrote about some of it. My one and only close encounter with the man himself came when I got the plum assignment to interview him for American Theater in 1992. This was, mind you, just before Three Tall Women zoomed him back to the forefront of the field. At the time I met him, he was teaching at the University of Houston and directing Shirley Knight and Tom Klunis in the American premiere of a tepid two-hander called Marriage Play. I was excited at the prospect – who wouldn’t want to meet the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – yet also wary. I’d spent a couple of days at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts reading every interview he’d ever done and noticed that he was always asked the same boring obvious questions and always gave the same boring pompous answers, practically verbatim. Having recently had a big success publishing an extremely cheeky Q-and-A with Madonna (see “The X-Rated Interview”), I was determined to make this conversation with Edward Albee something other than same-old-same-old.

edward-albee-1961-by-philippe-halsman                                              Edward Albee 1961, photographed by Philippe Halsman

The experience itself was underwhelming. My typewritten transcript begins: “Interview with Edward Albee in Houston, January 4, 1992, at his apartment in Houston House. Met me at the door wearing tinted glasses, familiar wrinkled leathery skin, dark blue knit shirt. A black cat (with white and orange trim) running around the house, a stray named Biscuit. The walls covered with art, most of it ghastly student work. Didn’t offer me anything to drink, just plunked down and started to talk. ‘I’ve been interviewed so much even in the last couple of years that I feel like everything’s been covered…’”

Later that day, I wrote in my diary: “Did the Albee interview at 11, talked for about two hours. Disappointing. What a frightened, tense, guarded man he is. I felt like I should have given him a massage before trying to interview him. Like the typical American man, he has a great deal of difficulty admitting to fear, weakness, self-doubt, vulnerability. Tyrannized by shoulds and imprisoned by his self-image. Deeply disingenuous — wants to have everything both ways. He shouldn’t have to give names to characters because it’s a waste of names — he likes that line and uses it often, ‘it’s a waste of names’ — but then he goes ahead and gives his characters symbolic names like Jack and Jill/Gillian, and then denies that they have symbolic value. He says Virginia Woolf is not about a gay couple but then says that gay and straight relationships are just the same. He’s never denied being gay but until recently he never made a positive statement either, which is like saying I’ve never voted Republican, therefore I’m a Democrat…

“When I came in, we sat right down and started –he didn’t offer me anything to drink, and he didn’t ask me what I thought of Marriage Play. I made cat chat and talked about living in Houston, otherwise there would have been no preamble to the interview. I was very diligent about thwarting him every time he went into one of his tape loops – ‘The purpose of art is…EJECT.’ He sat on the sofa, I sat on a chair, but he was so soft-spoken I moved closer, then partway into the interview I asked him to change places with me because the light from outside was reflecting onto his glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. He was surprisingly at ease talking about gay stuff, and I got the impression that he would have been perfectly happy to gossip and chat about that stuff for hours. But he had rehearsal at 1, so I didn’t get to ask him everything I wanted to know. Don’t feel inclined to call him up and ask him the other questions, because he’s so clearly full of denial, self-deception, and forgetfulness that it’s fruitless to press for more self-revelation. He seemed to like me, though, and in a veiled way was somewhat flirtatious — asked me how long I would be in town, gave me his phone number. On the elevator he mentioned that Danny Kaye apparently had a love affair with Laurence Olivier.”

I went home, wrote the story, and handed it in to my editor, Jim O’Quinn. Besides being a legendary great magazine editor, Jim was an old friend and champion of mine who supported me wholeheartedly, gave me great assignments, and loved virtually everything I wrote. With the Albee piece, something unprecedented happened. Jim let me know that the publishers of American Theater magazine (Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch) objected to my challenging, somewhat bratty tone, thought I was badgering the artist in a way that was unseemly, and insisted that certain passages be cut. I’d never encountered this kind of interference from the upper echelons of Theater Communications Group, and being the stubborn Taurus that I am, I fought the cuts fiercely. In particular I had talked to Albee about his long relationships with composer William Flanagan and playwright Terrence McNally and wondered how come he never portrayed gay relationships like that in his plays. Apparently Peter Zeisler told Jim that “under no circumstances will the names of people Albee slept with 20 years ago, famous or no, appear in our pages.” I found this insulting and offensive and said so. Ultimately, though, I agreed to the cuts, and the piece was published to no big fanfare. Looking back at the correspondence now, it strikes me as pretty funny – I’m sort of impressed at how passionate I felt about these things. On my website, I’ve posted the article as it appeared in American Theater with the cuts restored. You can read it online here.

When I go back and re-read the unedited transcript, I experience Albee’s personality with great vividness, both his brittle exterior and the tender person just beneath that. I frequently quote something he said to me that day: “I suffer from CRAFT disease – Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.” And I’m amused at the exchange we had about the light reflecting off his glasses. He was in the middle of an oft-repeated stale commentary about how Broadway should function as the American national theater when I interrupted him.

Me: Could we change places? The light is shining against your glasses, and I can’t see your eyes. Thanks. Continue.

Albee: I’ve finished that one.

Me: This is much better. I can see your eyes and get the whole face.

Albee: I’ll have to be more deceptive.



Culture Vulture: Holy Body Tattoo’s MONUMENTAL and nora chipaumire’s portrait of my father

September 18, 2016

I love artwork that shows me things I’ve never seen before. It’s why I’ve always been drawn to the downtown and other-borough venues that showcase emerging and experimental performance. The BAM Next Wave Festival began with a solid commitment to that realm of contemporary live art, and I’ve seen tremendous stuff there over the years. Inevitably, as the festival has become an international institution, there has been a drift toward brand names and sure-fire programming. But every so often BAM makes a new effort to tune into cutting-edge work, most recently by introducing the new cozy BAM Fisher (Fishman Space). This week I saw two shows by artists completely new to me (endorsed by my friend Keith Hennessy, himself a cutting-edge performance-maker/curator/teacher/scenester) and came away challenged and invigorated.

The Holy Body Tattoo is a Vancouver-based dance company that formed in 1993 and in 2006 morphed into a new entity called Animals of Distinction. In 2005, the company created monumental with choreography by company founders Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon, poetic films by William Morrison, texts by Jenny Holzer, and recorded music by Montreal emo band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Last year the bright idea emerged to revive the piece and tour it around to festivals with the band (who recently regrouped after being on hiatus for several years) playing live. I had no file on any of these artists except for Holzer, whose work with soulful/philosophical aphorisms I adore. When I arrived at the BAM Opera House, the ushers were handing out earplugs to nervous middle-aged patrons, which alerted me that it was going to be THAT kind of show, which usually thrills my rock-n-roll heart. The show was indeed a  multimedia spectacle with separate movement, sound, and visual tracks intertwining in provocative and compelling ways.

For the first half of the 85-minute piece, the nine dancers confined themselves to standing on boxes (or plinths, as they call them in the program) — for my taste, they ran out of interesting things to do up there pretty quickly so this section ran long for me. But after that, when they left the boxes, the dancing/movement/choreography kept transforming itself in ways that I could never pin down and mostly found exciting to watch.


The Holzer texts were longer than her usual one-liners and faded in and out unpredictably, forming chapters in a non-linear narrative. And the music was indeed monumental, droney and sweet and slow-building at times and then sometimes dense waves of squalling sound as three electric guitarists at high volume generated spooky crying overtones. Not quite like anything I’ve seen before, which is always high praise in my book.

Same went, only double, for nora chipaumire’s portrait of my father at the BAM Fisher.  It was ostensibly an exploration of black African masculinity centering on the father she never had any real relationship with. But from the minute you walk in the door this is an extremely layered piece in a space that is highly alive in every way. The stage is set up as a boxing ring with chipaumire and Pape Ibrahimas Ndiaye (representing her father/sparring partner) continuously connected via lengths of stretchy straps with Shamar Watt circulating as referee/cheerleader/stage-manager, constantly rearranging the portable floodlights that serve as the show’s only lighting. (A witty touch: instead of earplugs, the audience is issued cheap sunglasses in case the glare gets to be too much — a courtesy never offered at Richard Foreman shows.)

041316_0303_Nora's Dress Rehearsalportrait-of-myself-as-my-father-nora-chipaumire-nyc-march-2016-5917-2-xlportrait-of-myself-as-my-father-_640x359
But the activities, the costumes, the gestures, the masks, the soundscore, and the movement pile onto the boxing metaphor numerous other frameworks: hiphop concert, voodoo ritual, club performance, shamanic trance ceremony, and Wooster Group-style mediated theater. There’s a lot of movement that rarely looks like dancing, speech that rarely emerges as coherent sentences let alone narrative, sound that almost never sounds like music — and the whole thing is pretty riveting. The three performers push themselves to extremes of physical ability, gender identification, and cultural cross-reference.  I was dazzled. 


Quote of the day: QUESTIONS

September 18, 2016


You may have wondered about the fact that I almost never answer questions during therapy. Instead I usually ask the patient to change the question into a statement. The question mark has a hook the patient may use for many purposes, such as to embarrass the other person or, more often, to prevent himself from discovering what is really going on. This asking for environmental support keeps one in the infantile state. You will find that nothing develops your intelligence better than to take any question and turn it into a genuine statement. Suddenly the background will start to open up, and the ground from which the question grows will become visible.

–Fritz Perls


Culture Vulture/Photo diary: ART AIDS AMERICA at the Bronx Museum

September 16, 2016

(click photos twice to enlarge)

I wanted to reconnect with my old friend and colleague Jeff Weinstein, and we made a plan to take in the “Art AIDS America” show at the Bronx Museum. It amazes me that for all the time I’ve lived in New York City  (36 years), I’ve visited the Bronx only three or four times. The previous time was a revelation — the Foundry Theatre’s The Provenance of Beauty consisted of a bus tour of the South Bronx, with a poetic voiceover (text by Claudia Rankine) pointing out how vastly the neighborhood has changed and grown since the late ’70s when it was a virtual war zone. This expedition built on that impression. I enjoyed checking out the street art nearby as well as having lunch afterwards (spicy jerk chicken) at a Jamaican joint on Gerard Avenue called the Feeding Tree.

9-14-bronx-mural-rest-in-peace-digga 9-14-bronx-mural-robot-love 9-14-bronx-altar 9-14-bronx-butterfly-mural
The exhibition, co-curated by Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka, was a bit smaller than I expected and lived up to the mixed word-of-mouth regarding the choice of art and artists. Probably anyone who’s interested in this subject matter lives with a platonic ideal of such a show that no actual selection could match. Nevertheless, I was glad to see work by artists I admire, some of which I’d seen before (David Wojnarowicz’s intricate collage painting Bad Moon Rising), some I hadn’t (four panels from a series by Keith Haring called Apocalypse), as well as pieces by artists I’d heard of but never seen (Hunter Reynolds, whose Memorial Wedding Dress is a centerpiece of the show) and some completely new to me (Joey Terrill, whose witty canvas invites a game of spot-the-references while also being the first artwork I know of to depict Truvada, the anti-HIV medication that has revolutionized gay men’s sexual experience).

9-14-wojnarowicz-bad-moon-rising 9-14-bad-moon-rising-detail 9-14-keith-haring-apocalypse-series 9-14-haring-apocalypse-detail9-14-hunter-reynolds-survival-aids 9-14-reynolds-memorial-dress-plaque 9-14-joey-terrill-one-week-of-truvada 9-14-joey-terrill-wall-placque

Quote of the day: LONELINESS

September 16, 2016


What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing…So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to find satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed within a unit of two turned inward from the world at large?

–Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone


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