Edward Albee Blames His Newest Broadway Flop on the Critics—and Casts for Lolita on Subways

UPDATED 02/25/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/25/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

The only time I'll get good reviews is if I kill myself.

Or so groused Edward Albee when dismal notices closed his The Lady from Dubuque this month after a run of only 11 performances. "Broadway audiences will rarely take a chance unless they hear it is worth buying," he says. "But commercial merit doesn't have to do with a play's merit."

Perhaps not, but Albee's sizzling Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? achieved both in 1962, and with the scarcity of good, serious American plays, most critics have given Albee the benefit of the doubt over the years. Despite faultless acting, Lady from Dubuque seemed rather pallid Albee as the usual witty couples tipsily dismembered each other.

"The play is fine," insists Albee, dismissing particularly the TV critics as "dimwits." He is already hard at work on his next and 21st play, a stage adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, scheduled for Broadway later this year. "I loathed the movie," says Albee, who is now searching for a "better Lolita than Sue Lyon. Three years ago Kristy McNichol would have been perfect. But now she has developed breasts." Afternoons he "wanders around the subways looking strangely at 9-and 10-year-old girls. Mothers are giving me the oddest looks." He also reports, "Agent Sue Mengers, whom I knew when she was a secretary at William Morris, called. 'I have a wonderful client,' she said. 'Who?' 'Tatum O'Neal.' 'Isn't she a bit old?' I asked. 'Oh no, she's wonderful.' My retort—'Well, then I have a wonderful person to play Humbert Humbert.' 'Who?' 'Ryan O'Neal.' 'That's not funny,' she said."

Born in Washington, D.C. of unknown parentage, Edward was adopted at the age of 2 weeks by Reed and Frances Albee, heirs to a vaudeville theater chain. He was reared in a mansion in Larchmont, N.Y., complete with a stable. "I did have mixed feelings about my real parents," he says, "but once I created my own identity, I didn't care about all that." After a series of private schools, he went to Trinity College in Hartford until his sophomore year "when they suggested that I not come back, which was fine with me," he says. "If I hadn't left Trinity, I might have ended up an academic."

During his late teens and 20s, Albee unsuccessfully tried prose and poetry ("It was lousy") and worked in a luncheonette, as an office boy, in Bloomingdale's record department and, for three years, as a Western Union messenger (such a character often appears in his plays). "When I hit 30 a kind of explosion took place in my life," he says. "I'd been drifting and I got fed up with myself. I decided to write a play." In 1958, in just three weeks he turned out Zoo Story, and four years later his first full-length play, Virginia Woolf, opened on Broadway. "I made $800,000 on the movie and," he jokes, "paid $900,000 in taxes."

A modest millionaire, with inherited money as well as theatrical royalties, Albee commutes between an elegant loft in the nouveau-chic warehouse area of Tribeca in lower Manhattan and a house overlooking the Atlantic in Montauk, Long Island. He often lectures at colleges, getting $3,000 plus expenses ("not bad if you do 25 a year"), and frequently supports the work of young, unknown artists. The current man in his life is a painter.

Albee writes four hours in the morning and walks in the afternoon, often keeping two new plays (currently Attila the Hun and Quitting) in his head simultaneously. He attributes his youthful looks at 51 to giving up smoking and drinking and becoming "a morning person. It's bed at 11:30," he says. An excellent cook, he prefers to entertain at home, not out. "I'm slightly deaf, but the sound of disco is too painful," he says. "I'm not one of those writers who have to go to a psychiatrist because they are given a back table at Elaine's."

Though Albee finds Neil Simon to be a "very nice man," he is distressed by American audiences' preference for light, escapist comedy. "In a consumer-oriented society, you are penalized economically for being serious," he says. "Even Europe is going the light route. People withdraw into themselves because reality is too painful. Yet that is all we have."

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