So a cool pal of mine who will not want to be named here (because she is genetically predisposed to modesty and discretion) managed to snag me a "plus one" invite to today's memorial for the greatest playwright of our time, Edward Albee. If you occasionally visit Extra Criticum, then you know what this man meant (No, "means!") to me.
As soon as I opened the email I wondered who I might ask to go as my "plus one." Now, I'm not the type to need to cast about for a "plus one" for anything, certainly not a funeral, but these past few months have been some of the loneliest on record, due in large part to a severe back injury which still threatens to put me under the knife, something I am trying desperately to avoid at all costs. The result has been days of isolation. And so I find myself feeling hopeful that my slowly healing lumbar vertebrae might show some restraint this afternoon, at least long enough to make it up to Times Square for the memorial. Incidentally, although my invite guarantees me a seat the memorial is technically open to the public so if you're an Albee fan, try your luck in the line. Doors at the August Wilson Theatre (245 W. 52nd Street) open at 12:30PM for the 1PM "show." (And yes, I do feel safe in my assumption that Mr. Albee would have enthusiastically endorsed use of the word "show" in this context.)
I am also keenly aware of an unmistakeable emotional pull to skip today's "show." If it only manages to touch on one or two of his unique character traits, today's memorial is sure to bring up all sorts of unresolved feelings, existential questions, doubts, fears, regrets in me. Put simply, Edward Albee looms large in my psyche. I once heard him say that if we're asked to drop upwards of a hundred bucks on a Broadway show, then surely it ought to shake us to our very core. I do feel on some level that every time I sit down to write a new play, I'm chasing Albee's example. Hoping my characters might each speak with their own clear voice rooted in an intuitive honest faithful devotion to human nature. Also hoping to bite off something larger than an "issue of the moment" but reach for something universal, something deeply human by delving bravely into the darkest corners of the individual, the specific. And finally, hoping to make something memorable, arresting, and defiantly unafraid. And so, of course, I want the person seated beside me to share a deep appreciation of at least some of the ways his work was hands-down in a category all its own.
Like my thoughtful well-connected friend who put me on the guest list, the first person I thought to invite will also go unnamed here. Over the past several decades, she and I must have shared more than a half dozen thrilling evenings spent together devouring some top-notch production of an Albee play. Without fail, as we left the theatre, the two of us would find ourselves caught in one of two involuntary responses that tend to follow a good production of a great play: Either we'd share in an off-the-cuff interpretation of the play, its broad and deep reverberations, often managing to call from short-term memory a few particularly potent strands of dialogue all the while continuously finishing each other's sentences, completing and/or correcting each other's assertions. Or, the flip side: we would drift, two lost souls making our way up the aisle and out into a world we now understood to be somehow more perilous and also more wondrous than we'd imagined, struck dumb by the power of the play, sharing our deep impression of it only through the occasional fleeting locking of our eyes. I'd see it in her eyes and she'd see it in mine and we both knew better than to dare say a word. If we happened to have attended the play with other people and any of them displayed the poor taste to actually be talking after having been torn apart by Mr. Albee's vision, we pitied them for their blundering and we judged them silently.
Only once do I recall her having something negative to say about an Albee play. It was after the one-woman play about American sculptor Louise Nevelson he'd written for Anne Bancroft which we saw in its premiere at Signature Theatre. We were among the fortunate few who caught one of the few performances Bancroft was able to give before she vanished into a slow and hidden death march by way of ovarian cancer. I'll never forget what my companion said as the lights came up. "Such chutzpah! He thinks cause he's Edward Albee he can just scribble something on a napkin and we'll all come running." Again, we agreed that this play, which wasn't one of Albee's best, had felt rushed and somewhat shallow in its writing.
I wanted (for a moment) to invite her to join me today, but then realized I wouldn't. I couldn't. What eats away at me, a little bit more almost every day, is that this woman, this brilliant woman with whom I shared so much, is slowly making her own death march. With each season her mind arrives and shows itself to be somehow just a little bit less her own than it was a few weeks or months or days ago. This creeping dementia robs her of her autonomy and me of random threads of a profound connection with one of the great relationships of my life.
The second person I thought of was my Dad, who adored Edward Albee's wit and understood as only a deeply intuitive psychiatrist could, how spot-on the playwright was in matters of the human heart. Unfortunately for me, Dad left the planet three years ago. Or as my mother put it to the well-meaning Christian cashier at Trader Joe's who offered condolences as "He's in a better place," "HE IS NOT IN A BETTER PLACE. HE IS BURIED IN THE GROUND." Full stop.
Pretty quickly, it dawned on me that one of my oldest friends, the brilliant Laura Callanan, is decidedly my first pick for today's memorial. Laura's late husband was the vastly under-appreciated playwright Romulus Linney and through Romulus, she found herself in the enviable position of becoming friends with Mr. Albee, whom I recall she always referred to as Edward whenever he'd come up in casual conversation. "We were leaving Edward's Christmas party last week and..." This always gave me a little start because I personally could never imagine referring to him as anything but Mr. Albee, taking pains whenever I addressed him directly not to sharpen the "a" sound but to keep the vowel open ("Hello Mr. Awlbee. Can I offer you a bottle of water or a soda?") as he had instructed me and countless others throughout his life.
Another reason it'll be great to have Laura by my side today is that she is super bright and whenever she and I do attend plays together (never one of Albee's so far -- Let's see if we can change that, Laura.) she often has something to observe about what we've just seen that I might not have thought of myself. Laura and I have known each other since we were both precocious little creative go-getters in our high school drama club. In fact, come to think of it, I had just started writing my first plays during those years. And I imagine Laura must have seen one or two of them. Back then, it might have seemed a stretch to some observers for the kid who had acted in a bunch of productions and directed a few, to imagine he knew the first thing about how to write a play. The truth is, I didn't know much, but I had ideas. And the audacity to put them down on paper and organize my fellow students in their production. Back then, I was decidedly shy, almost embarrassed to admit I had written a play that someone might want to see because I hadn't been formally trained. And apart from a handful of undergraduate classes in drama and play structure, I still to this day have not trained as a playwright. My degrees are in Music. Possibly my best "playwriting class" came in the form of actor/director Alvin Epstein inviting me to his house one day for tea and to listen to my latest play. We both drank tea while I read the play aloud -- start to finish. And then, Alvin engaged me with a series of probing questions, which really helped me understand so much about the craft of playwriting. He and I eventually fell into a habit of meeting for one of these teas for every one of my plays and screenplays written during a particular period of about ten years when we were both living in Boston.
Anyway, the point of all this is simply that I have not yet outgrown the very silly and somewhat unappealing habit of apologizing for my work or my self as an artist. That, by the way, is something Edward Albee never did, as far as I can see. I can trace the roots of that awkward shyness to my first efforts in high school drama where Laura and I began our friendship. But today, Laura is one of a handful of people in my life who in subtle and not so subtle ways always manage to say things in the course of casual conversation that remind me that I am an artist, that I should not be embarrassed or shy about it, and that I am actually not too shabby of one either.
And you know what? Edward Albee did the same thing for me during the 15 minutes we spent one afternoon in a hallway outside a reading of one of my plays. He offered his wisdom about my play colleague to colleague, and in so doing, left me feeling that quite possibly I might be doing something worthwhile. For artists in this country, encountering anyone who takes for granted that what we are doing is not a profound waste of time and energy can feel miraculous. The last time I saw Laura was a couple weeks ago, and I was struck by the fact that one of her first questions to me, was about my writing output. She wasn't scolding. And she wasn't exactly nurturing, either. She was just matter of fact. The question was posed in a way that suggested there could be no doubt as to whether I should be writing, only she wondered how my recent physical setback might be affecting the overall output. But that there should and will always be an output to concern ourselves with, coming from someone like Laura, who I love and respect a great deal, means more to me than one might imagine.
And so, having a person like Laura in my life almost makes up for the recent absence of others from my life who I somehow naively took for granted as permanent fixtures with their questions, criticisms and encouragement. At a certain point, as Edward Albee came to understand at the age of 30 when he decided to write himself his first play as a birthday present, we each must simply decide that the time has come for us to believe in ourselves. And as we adjust to this possibly awkward and unfamiliar new posture, we somehow carry with us the echoes of those first spirit guides who did it for us from the get-go, long before we were ready or able or inclined to do so ourselves.