Towering achievement

The critical disdain into which playwright Edward Albee sunk from the late '70s through the early '90s isn't the surprise of his career. That he ever enjoyed the relatively brief affection of Broadway audiences and critics is the real anomaly.

Albee has been called the heir to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but his real debt is to their European contemporaries--Beckett and Ionesco, men who favored experimental form over theatrical content and employed a burning humor to explore topics that Miller and Williams had addressed in more or less conventional tragedies and melodramas. The fall of spiritually wounded people is seen as a source of comedy because it is inevitable--the pretense of human dignity just so much white grease paint on the sad clown's face. Albee possesses a world view that's not much cheerier than Beckett or Ionesco, although he medicates his ailing characters with small spoonfuls of sympathy--a gesture that his European forefathers probably would have regarded as self-indulgent.

This is not the kind of attitude people clamor to see, especially with Broadway ticket prices ranging in the high double digits. New York audiences flocked to see Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1963 not because they were hungry for the nervy insights of a wildly praised new talent; the drama's cornucopia of dirty words and wanton infidelity was the real draw. The relationship between Albee and Broadway went steadily downhill after that monumental drama. Ever the perverse imp, Albee wrote plays whose inaccessibility increased as his popularity dwindled. Tiny Alice was a jigsaw psycho-drama that featured a foul-mouthed Roman Catholic cardinal and seemed to be about how institutions like the church dwarf individuals to insignificant doll size; Everything in the Garden lampooned domesticity with its portrait of a housewife who cheerfully operates a prostitution ring with her friends just to earn a little mad money.

And yet, it seems the times have caught up with Edward Albee; his gently sulphurous A Delicate Balance received a Tony this year for best revival for a much-publicized production featuring Rosemary Harris and Elaine Stritch. Two years ago, he won his third Pulitzer Prize with Three Tall Women, a remarkably compact two-act dramatic comedy that explores the life of a very rich, very angry woman from the vantage point of her 92nd birthday.

Three Tall Women was the first Albee play produced in New York City in a decade, which apparently marks the ultimate comeback in some circles. During that time, the playwright taught one semester per year at the University of Houston, collaborated with Houston's acclaimed Alley Theatre, and continued to direct his own new plays as European premieres.

The Dallas Theater Center opens its 1996-'97 season with a pristine, laugh-heavy production of Three Tall Women directed by Lawrence Sacharow, who captained the original New York City show. Sacharow obviously understands that Albee's supple, piercing language amasses after one act into a gloomy haystack of misanthropy that threatens to smother the ticket buyer. He keeps the show punchy, unsentimental, and hyperaware of the comic moments in an otherwise quintessential Albee tirade about the collapse of adult delusions in the face of mortality.

The first act concerns an afternoon conversation in the splendorous bedroom of A (Lucille Patton), a wealthy 92-year-old widow who has deteriorated into a senile state; she is rife with recrimination for the son, husband, and lover who have betrayed her. There are two witnesses to her rambling confessions: her 52-year-old assistant, B (Laurie Kennedy), a woman of seemingly boundless patience who prods A with gentle questions as if on cue; and C (Fiona Davis), the 26-year-old representative of A's lawyer who is horrified at the old woman's talk of Jews, coloreds, and fairies.

Audiences are left to dangle at intermission with the impression of a very funny one-woman show featuring two onstage witnesses. Albee then executes a thrilling pirouette in the second act of Three Tall Women; A, B, and C are transformed into the same woman at three different ages, freely and often fractiously engaging one another about the single life they've led. C cannot believe her youthful good nature will deteriorate into the angry, adulterous B and the regretful, imperious A.

DTC's production of Three Tall Women sails high atop the wings of two extraordinary actresses. Lucille Patton as the elderly A is pretty much mandated by the script to play the grande dame routine, the matriarch too old to give a damn what anyone thinks of her anymore. Thankfully, Patton takes nothing for granted; she works to please the audience, not herself, and does so effortlessly, conjuring up real heartbreak. Laurie Kennedy as B is the more unsympathetic character, a stern menopausal woman who balances her spleen with a still pleasurable memory of last year's sexual escapades. Kennedy plays her as a marvel of glib wisdom.

As the earnest C, Fiona Davis lags far behind her co-stars in expressing a coherent, compelling character. That she's given so little to do is part of the problem; unfortunately, Davis doesn't supplement her own meager plate with inspired line readings.

A note about Albee's sexuality and the content of his plays: The playwright has been openly gay virtually his entire adult life, yet his large body of work omits overt gay characters and gay themes. This has been the source of some criticism from gay pundits, and certainly deserves investigation if one operates from the generally accepted maxim that writers write about what they know.

What Albee has done is provide the best evidence available in American theater for the existence of that chimerical, hotly disputed creature called "gay sensibility." Tony Kushner, Nicky Silver, and Christopher Durang etch sharply detailed gay and lesbian characters struggling to stay afloat in the homophobic currents of American society. What Albee has done is trickier and, in some ways, a lot braver; he portrays self-deluded heterosexuals floundering to maintain the illusion of stability that marriage, children, and domesticity in general are supposed to supply. The heroine at the center of Three Tall Women has grown bitter from the rampant disappointment of family relationships. She is another in a long line of Albee people who are forced to confront themselves but discover, after a lifetime of spiritual neglect, there is no reflection in the mirror. The joke is that Edward Albee, so long out of fashion, has proven himself the most savagely relevant voice in this age of family values rhetoric.

Three Tall Women runs through September 29. Call 522-