Far from Over

In March of 1971, Edward Albee, the writer of such astonishing plays as Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, had just turned 43. But critics who'd recently seen his latest theatrical endeavor, All Over, had begun to wonder if the playwright's career was all over. Though the production's impressive cast included Jessica Tandy and Colleen Dewhurst, and though John Gielgud directed, the script bewildered and bored many critics, and they gleefully butchered it in their reviews. To make matters worse, Albee had produced very little work since his 1966 Pulitzer for A Delicate Balance. Folks had begun to wonder whether Albee could still write.

If success truly is the best revenge, Albee must be feeling fine these days. The two Pulitzers he's received since that March have answered any questions about his endurance. Indeed, Albee -- now considered one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century -- has thoroughly trumped his critics, whom he has famously and publicly despised to the point of calling them writers "best qualified to cover brushfires in New Jersey."

It's one sign of Albee's triumph that Stages is currently reviving All Over, the very play those critics so hated. The director, Sidney Berger, sits on the couch in his office at the University of Houston and proclaims that All Over is "certainly one of the major plays of Mr. Albee's canon, without question."

Albee, who sits nearby, points his finger in the air and says softly, "Boom."

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Berger looks over, quizzical.
"That's my cannon," explains Albee, who also teaches at the university. He speaks in a low growl, but his diction is precise. It's a voice that suits his downturned face, with eyes hidden under heavy brows.

Berger's point is arguable; All Over is one of the least anthologized of all Albee's works. But why quibble? The play is a thoughtful, strange tale that seems altogether Albee-esque. A group of people wait for a man to die. Though we never meet the man, we encounter his wife, his mistress, daughter, son, best friend, doctor and nurse -- all of them stuck together, waiting it out, making self-discoveries along the way. Berger says it's a play about waiting; in 1971, Albee said it is a play about death. Either way, it's difficult -- a script that critic Clive Barnes said was "not easy in its structure ... [or] in its subject matter."

But Albee's plays are never easy. And Berger says he was "eager" to do another after finishing A Delicate Balance last year for Stages. When Artistic Director Rob Bundy suggested they do All Over, Berger said yes -- especially since Albee would be there to advise.

Still, says Berger, "I went in with a great deal of trepidation. I wanted to do it the way the playwright wrote it. If it doesn't please him, we've failed."

Certainly Albee, who thinks of himself as a "pussycat, nice until crossed," is no easy audience. Recalling the play's last major speech, as delivered in the previous night's rehearsal, he turns to Berger: "I remember writing 'I'm unhappy,' not 'I'm so unhappy.' "

Berger says, "You're absolutely right."
"Then why does [the actress] put 'so' in there?" Albee wants to know.
"It's the first time she's ever done that," says Berger quickly.
"Never let her do that again." Albee pauses. "It's not 'so unhappy.' "
"But at least she did it consistently," says Berger brightly.
"That's right," says Albee. "She was wrong, consistently." He smiles.

Albee describes himself as preoccupied "with the precision of language." He wants his actors letter-perfect.

And if Berger has his way, they will be. The rehearsal has been arduous. Albee comes in at the end of each week and looks over the work the cast has done. He comments on timing, rhythms and, most of all, those words.

And for goodness sake, don't mention the critics. Albee doesn't even show up on opening nights anymore. "I don't want to be there in case the set falls down."

All Over plays through March 29 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52-

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