Depending on your cinematic perspective, even before the current pandemic, early Sunday mornings on New York City’s subways can be like an extinct Krell-like set piece from Forbidden Planet, or that noone- else-around experience where you imagine meeting the train-dwelling ghoul in Ghost. Film iconography aside, entering the subway’s southbound entrance and passing through the turnstile at an ungodly hour I fully expected to be alone on the platform.
I was returning from Bed Bath & Beyond, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, to my Tribeca apartment a mere five stops away on the Broadway–Seventh Avenue Local. I carried shopping bags full of items: new pillowcases to replace the fraying ones I’d been apologizing to overnight guys — er, guests — about for too long; clear shower curtain liners, the heavy grommetted ones I like, which the store carried; silver polish to tackle the tarnish on the Victorian sterling cigarette box I’d been apportioned when my mother moved into assisted living—a list of things I’d put off in lieu of weekend brunches with friends and “fear of missing out” museum exhibits.
As every New Yorker knows, subway trains can be interminably slow on weekend mornings, and I quickly sighted the only bench far down the platform where I could drop my cargo and sit. Walking toward the bench I just as quickly realized I wasn’t alone after all. An older man was seated with his own gaggle of white shopping bags from the same big box store at his feet. Did I mention film iconography? I might have added theater. As I sat down I glanced over at the man and, rather astonished, I said, “Edward?” “Yes,” he replied. The man was the playwright Edward Albee. It appeared I had made my entrance in an impromptu version of The Zoo Story, Albee’s first play, about two men who meet on a park bench — the play that launched his career.
I wasn’t disturbing his quiet contemplation, however. On the contrary, I was saying hello to an old acquaintance.
I first met Albee as an undergraduate when he held an intimate discussion with a group of theater students at the University of Tennessee, my alma mater. A few years later and living in New York City, I found myself again shaking his hand backstage at the Broadway production of his play A Delicate Balance, which starred our mutual friend George Grizzard, the original Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sometime later I was introduced to Albee’s late partner, Jonathan Thomas, while in the company of yet another mutual friend. We had been invited to a Christmas party at their apartment, not far from my own, where I rubbed elbows with legends such as Elaine Stritch and Rosemary Harris.
And now, sitting on a subway bench with America’s most acclaimed living playwright, I had Albee all to myself. I was in the “Dear Diary” stratosphere and the only time in all my years in New York that I hoped the train would never arrive.
Chatting with Albee was revelatory. Before I moved into magazines I had worked for many years in stage management, on pre -Broadway engagements while still in college; at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C.; and eventually, on Broadway. Albee and I reminisced about old theater productions we had both regarded, now-older actors we had both worked with, and, in Albee’s view, the dearth of classical and otherwise intelligent plays being produced on Broadway for an increasingly splintered audience. Albee’s fairly nasal voice was the perfect understudy to his caustically insightful observations.
Alas, 15 minutes later, like you hear on the news when someone is interviewed about a tornado touching down, there was the sound of a train approaching. Upon its arrival we both gathered our shopping bags and boarded the nearly empty car, sitting while I casually sized up the two other passengers (they had no idea who they were in the presence of). More conversation, some gossip, and five stops later Albee and I arrived at our shared destination. Emerging to street level we exchanged our delight at meeting again and, hoard in hands, we diverted east and south to our own dwellings.
There would be no Edward Albee backstage when I sat down at the Booth Theatre to see a preview of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee died in 2016, but my encounters with him loom large in my memory and the same can be said with this current revival. Under the deft direction of the always-great Joe Mantello, the luminous Laurie Metcalf is to theater what a nova is to astronomy, her Martha exploding and receding with such intensity the Hubble Space Telescope could only hope to witness. Rupert Everett’s laser-like George is a breakout performance that will undoubtedly take him to new career heights. And, as the naïve couple invited for a nightcap, I’ve had a secret crush on actor Russell Tovey (duh, right?) since I saw him on Broadway in The History Boys; his verbal undercuts as Nick are as muscular as his biceps, while Patsy Ferran’s Broadway debut as Honey is the most disheartening sober-to-drunk I’ve ever seen on the stage.
Why mount this production now? It’s hardly escapable that the game that George and Martha play–the game that extinguishes not only themselves but also Nick and Honey’s youthful innocence–is the game we’re all playing at the moment, indeed, and have been playing since Derrida and deconstruction. Illusion versus certainty. Truth versus lies. Fake versus real. Assumption versus moral judgment.
“You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society based on principles…,” Everett’s George laments. “You bring things to the saddest of all points… to the point where there is something to lose…. And what is it? What does the trumpet [ironic emphasis mine] sound? ‘Up yours.’ I suppose there’s justice to it, after all these years…. Up yours.” The play is the timely yardstick to measure all others, to measure ourselves. Sadly, it was canceled after only eight preview nights, another victim of the current national health crisis.
How this vibrant production would have morphed and staggered from its alcohol-laden previews to opening night is beside the point. Maybe we’re all functioning drunks like George and Martha. Maybe we’re all destroying each other in a parallel living room in a house on a small New England college. This revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? desperately wanted to revive us. If it had happened, the hangover would likely have been severe.