Harold Pinter said that "one of the most pronounced ingredients in [Edward Albee's] work is mischief." And that's true, too, of the man himself. During an hour-long talk last week at the Rep, the 78-year-old playwright shuffled his feet, grinned like a bright kid with designs on the cookie jar, and responded to questions with a rascally spin.
When the Rep's artistic director, David Esbjornsen, asked about "the protagonist" in The Lady From Dubuque, Albee responded, with feigned freshman innocence, "What is a protagonist?" Later, he opined that the state of playwriting is healthy enough in America, because we only need three or four very good playwrights anyway. (In fact, Albee's famous for promoting and supporting younger dramatists.) He even undercut the revival of Dubuque itself, which has been rarely performed since its Broadway premiere in 1979, when it was savaged by critics and closed after only 13 performances. "It's a good play," he began, but then added, "Perhaps if the critics like it this time around, it might even become one of my favorites again."
The mischief only deepened two nights later with the opening of Dubuque, in which a collection of "friends" trying to accommodate a dying woman's difficult behavior have a visit from the mysterious title character. Albee's best plays preserve a delicate balance, walking a fragile line between plausible psychological realism and the mysterious undercurrents of the unconscious, strangely given voice. People speak in vast generalities that nonetheless seem part of the dark undercurrent of how we truly live and feel. Dreamlike moments are carefully hidden beneath the brilliant scalding wit of characters expert in wounding each other.
But in Dubuque, there's a perceptible crack between the two worlds of symbols and reality, one that seems deliberately frustrating and off-putting. Albee seems determined to hold his audience at a distance from these people, who are divided between witty but cruel and nice but dull. Repeatedly, they turn and speak directly to us, not in a confidential aside, but as if we're a character in the same room. When the bewildered husband repeatedly asks the lady from Dubuque, "Who are you?" her evasions exasperate not just him but us as well. And the final revelation is unclear—not, I suspect, because of a lack of craft, but because that's precisely how the playwright wants it. Depending on your tolerance for this, you may find it frustrating, intriguing, or fascinating.
I'm still learning the style of Esbjornsen, who's only been heading the Rep since 2005, but I believe he may be a touch too cerebral of a director, so much so that he would choose a play like this whose greatest fault is its lack of heart. When you try and figure out what exactly these people are talking about with such anger, such passion, such elaborately complicated sentences, it all seems to fall apart. The playwright does such a meticulous job in covering his tracks, in keeping us from understanding just what the subject is that everyone insists on avoiding, that one begins to wonder if there's any great secret at all. His writing is so often about either everything or nothing. It's a mystery, or it's a mischief. And Albee's certainly not saying which.