It’s not every day that you see a production of an Edward Albee play that you have never read or seen before.
The unassuming title is “Fam and Yam,” which sounds like something Samuel Beckett might have considered and rejected for one of his minimalist creations. The play is not included in the three-volume edition of Albee’s Collected Plays. And until the Pacific Resident Theater Albee/Beckett bill, I don’t remember hearing anything about it.
The Venice Theater presents “Fam and Yam” as a prelude to Harold Pinter’s richer and more stylish “The Dumb Waiter”. These works don’t have much in common, except that they’re both 1960’s two-handed plays by absurdist playwrights who forge fiercely independent paths.
Directed by Marilyn Fox, Artistic Director of Pacific Resident Theatre, Fam and Yam is more of a sketch than a fully realized one-act play. Albee was of course one of the masters of the short form. Perhaps the most famous one-act play of all time, The Zoo Story launched its career in 1959 and still holds pride of place alongside his greater masterpieces such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance. ‘ and ‘Three Great Women’.
The situation of “Fam and Yam” is not without autobiographical interest. The play offers a snapshot of Albee, who died in 2016, as an aspiring young playwright, a man of impeccable manners who is nonetheless a determined revolutionary bent on overthrowing the dying theater establishment.
After writing a fetching letter, Yam arrives at Fam’s luxury apartment on the East Side, the kind of place Yam associates with Joan Crawford and Susan Hayward films. Fam is prolific, a point Yam makes by mentioning a Columbia University intellectual who views Fam’s simple issuance as a sign of “commercial hacking.” (The professor in question is a thinly veiled version of the renowned critic Robert Breastein.)
Ready to be flattered, Fam anxiously refills his sherry glass. He congratulates Yam on the success of his new Off-Broadway play. What’s it called again? “Dilemma, decay and death,” Yam reminds him, noting that it opened four months ago.
If Yam is obviously Albee and “Dilemma, Dereliction and Death” is a tongue-in-cheek stand-in for “The Zoo Story”, then who is Fam? In his Albee biography, Mel Gussow reveals that the successful older playwright is a replacement for William Inge, the playwright who had a string of Broadway hits in the 1950s including Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic and “Bus stop”. ‘ and ‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’, all of which were filmed (hence the expensive apartment, the walls of which are covered in contemporary masterpieces).
Albee had sent Inge a copy of The Zoo Story hoping for feedback, but only received a polite, noncommittal reply. No thank you. One generation was not particularly eager to give way to the next. But Albee wasn’t easily deterred. He went to Inge’s apartment and absorbed the ostentatious wealth of a writer who may have realized for himself that his peak was already behind him.
Gussow calls “Fam and Yam” a “malicious parody” of this real-life encounter. The conflict between the old guard and the vanguard is exacerbated in the play after Yam explains the reason for his visit. He writes an article on the state of American theater, looking for a hero to praise but even more eager to denounce those “villains” who are holding back progress.
This list of defendants includes theater owners, producers, supporters, unions, critics, directors and, yes, playwrights too. No one seems safe from Yam’s fanatical anger, which Albee sends up and parodies the militant excesses of the new wave he’s helped lead.
“That… not that… that doesn’t leave much for a hero, does it?” remarks the Milquetoast Fam nervously. He’s not at all happy about the idea of being taken out to pasture by a guy with a trendy geometric haircut.
Albee caricatures the stingy professorial family as self-pitying, pandering and insincere. Even his chuckling laugh (in Brad Greenquist’s performance) is disingenuous. A creature of social affectation, he has lost any artistic authenticity he might once have possessed.
But Albee doesn’t let Yam off the hook either. The character plays the courtier, but the compliments he gives are obviously fake. Yam realizes that he is on the way up and that Fam is on the way down. And since Fam doesn’t want to help him, Yam is happy to give him a good push. Jason Downs’ performance captures the passive nature of Yam’s aggression.
The play makes no great effort to hide its real models. Yam includes Fam in a group of playwrights that include Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder and not least Ing. Fam comments on the feisty new generation that includes Jack Gelber, Jack Richardson, Arthur Kopit and of course Albee.
Inge and Albee, the peaking names on this list, are preceded by a tongue-in-cheek shrug—a dead sign. But Albee has never written a play in which experience has not turned into art. A pure biography was repugnant to him, but his work nevertheless reveals aspects of his life.
So why has “Fam and Yam” more or less disappeared? I asked Albee Estate officials why the work was omitted from the three-volume collection of Overlook Duckworth plays. The response had perfectly sharp Albee-like opacity: “Edward was making his (very careful) editorial decisions at the time Overlook was making these books, and we assume this was one of them. There are other small pieces and fragments that are not included in the anthology.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if Fam and Yam’s exclusion had anything to do with what happened to Inge, whose tragic suicide in Los Angeles in 1973 followed the freefall of his once-glamorous career. Gussow reports in his 1999 biography that Inge was angry after the magazine publication of “Fam and Yam” in 1960.
In a letter to composer Ned Rorem, Inge wrote: ‘Don’t you suddenly become famous and turn around and write nasty pieces about me like your dirty little friend Edward Albee in Harper’s Bazaar. It’s a play that would bring him a great deal of embarrassment over time. God, what a smug little creature he must be to write like he’s perfectly sure of his own future standing.”
Long after Fam and Yam premiered in 1960, Albee included it in a self-directed one-act tour called Albee Directs Albee. The production, a three-night marathon, came to Los Angeles in 1978.
If Albee felt the work was unfair to Inge, he probably would have chosen to stage a revised version of the play in the town where Inge had died just a few years earlier. Perhaps Gussow’s biography later changed Albee’s mind, but there’s probably a simpler reason the play has been forgotten.
“Fam and Yam” is a side work in a way that his best one-act plays (“The Zoo Story”, “The Sandbox”, “The American Dream”) are not. In her 1978 review of the production, Times theater critic Sylvie Drake identified “Fam and Yam” as the weak link in “Albee Direct’s Albee,” calling the play “the slimmest of self-jibes” and a “flamboyant parody.”
That verdict holds true for 2022 as well. The production at the Pacific Resident Theater is more of a historical curiosity than a satisfying theatrical discovery. But it’s still an intriguing starter for a Pinter main course.
Co-directed by Elina de Santos and Fox, The Dumb Waiter does not disappoint. Downs (who is doing double duty) and Anthony Foux handle the Pinter-like threat. And it’s great to see actors delve into the cryptically precise language of two artists who ushered in new styles of theater writing that would forever change the way characters speak and act on stage.
‘Albee/Pinter’: ‘Fam and Yam’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter’
Where: Pacific Resident Theater, 705½ Venice Blvd., Venice
When: Runs until December 17th. (Check the theater’s website for schedules and possible extensions)
Price: Start at $25
The information: (310) 822-8392 or pacificresidenttheatre.org/albee-pinter
Duration: 1 hour, 20 minutes
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-12-07/commentary-mysterious-edward-albee-play The backstage drama of Edward Albee’s little-known one-act play