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Commentary: The case of a mysterious Edward Albee play that has resurfaced in L.A.

It’s not every day you get to see a production of an Edward Albee play that you’ve never read or seen before.

The unprepossessing title is “Fam and Yam,” which sounds like something Samuel Beckett might have considered and rejected for one of his minimalist creations. The piece isn’t included in the three-volume edition of Albee’s collected plays. And until Pacific Resident Theatre’s “Albee/Beckett” bill, I can’t remember hearing anything about it.

The Venice theater presents “Fam and Yam” as a curtain raiser for Harold Pinter’s more substantial and stylistically assured “The Dumb Waiter.” These works don’t have much in common, other than that they’re both two-handers from 1960 by absurdist playwrights carving out fiercly independent paths.

Directed by Pacific Resident Theatre’s artistic director, Marilyn Fox, “Fam and Yam” is more of a sketch than a fully realized one-act. Albee, of course, was one of the masters of the short form. “The Zoo Story,” perhaps the most famous one-act of all time, launched his career in 1959 and still retains an honored place alongside his larger-scale masterpieces, such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “A Delicate Balance” and “Three Tall Women.”

David Mamet once described two of New York’s leading drama critics as the syphilis and gonorrhea of the American theater.

The situation of “Fam and Yam” is not without autobiographical interest. The play offers a snapshot of Albee, who died in 2016, as a rising young playwright, a man of impeccable manners who is nonetheless a determined revolutionary, hellbent on toppling the moribund theater establishment.

After writing an ingratiating letter, Yam arrives at Fam’s deluxe East Side apartment, the kind of place Yam associates with Joan Crawford and Susan Hayward movies. Fam is prolific to a fault, a point Yam references through mention of a Columbia University intellectual who considers Fam’s ease of output a sign of “commercial hackery.” (The professor in question is a thinly veiled version of renowned critic Robert Brustein.)

Prepared to be flattered, Fam finds himself anxiously refilling his sherry glass. He congratulates Yam on the success of his new off-Broadway play. What’s it called again? “Dilemma, Dereliction and Death,” Yam reminds him, further pointing out that it opened four months ago.

If Yam is obviously Albee and “Dilemma, Dereliction and Death” a wry substitute for “The Zoo Story,” who is Fam? In his biography of Albee, Mel Gussow reveals that the successful older dramatist is a surrogate for William Inge, the playwright who had a string of Broadway hits in the 1950s, including “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “Picnic,” “Bus Stop” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” all of which were adapted into films (thus the expensive apartment, with its walls covered in contemporary masterpieces).

Hoping for feedback, Albee had sent Inge a copy of “The Zoo Story” but received only a courteously noncommittal reply. Thanks, but no thanks. One generation was not especially eager to make room for the next. But Albee wasn’t easily deterred. He went to Inge’s apartment, taking in the ostentatious affluence of a writer who may have himself realized that his peak was already behind him.

Gussow calls “Fam and Yam” a “malicious spoof” of this real-life encounter. The conflict between the old guard and the avant-garde is heightened in the play after Yam explains the reason for his visit. He’s writing an article on the state of the American theater, looking for a hero to extol but even more eager to call out those “villains” who are holding progress back.

This list of those to be indicted includes theater owners, producers, backers, unions, critics, directors and, yes, playwrights too. No one seems to be safe from Yam’s fanatical fury, which Albee sends up, parodying the militant excesses of the new wave he was helping to lead.

“That… that doesn’t… that doesn’t leave much for a hero, does it?” the milquetoast Fam nervously remarks. He’s not at all pleased at the idea of being put out to pasture by a guy with a faddish geometric haircut.

Albee caricatures the foppishly professorial Fam as sniveling, ingratiating and insincere. Even his tittering laugh (in Brad Greenquist’s performance) is disingenuous. A creature of social affectation, he’s lost touch with 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 dispenses are transparently phony. Yam realizes that he’s on the way up and that Fam is on the way down. And since Fam won’t offer him a helping hand, Yam is more than happy to give him a good push. Jason Downs’ portrayal captures the passive nature of Yam’s aggression.

The play doesn’t go to great lengths to hide its real-life models. Yam includes Fam in a group of playwrights that includes Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder and, last but not least, Inge. Fam comments on the feisty new generation that includes Jack Gelber, Jack Richardson, Arthur Kopit and, of course, Albee.

Inge and Albee, the culminating names on this list, are preceded by ironic shrugs — a dead giveaway. But Albee never wrote a play in which experience wasn’t transformed into art. Straight biography was beneath him, yet his work nonetheless reveals aspects of his life.

So why did “Fam and Yam” more or less disappear? I asked representatives of the Albee estate why the work was left out of the Overlook Duckworth three-volume collection of plays. The response had a perfectly crisp Albee-esque opacity: “Edward made his (very careful) editorial decisions at the time Overlook was creating these books and we suppose this was one of them. There are other small pieces and fragments not included in the anthology.”

I couldn’t help wondering whether the exclusion of “Fam and Yam” might have had something to do with what happened to Inge, whose tragic suicide in Los Angeles in 1973 followed the free fall of his once-glittering career. Gussow reports in his 1999 biography that Inge was furious after the magazine publication of “Fam and Yam” in 1960.

In a letter to composer Ned Rorem, Inge wrote, “Don’t become famous all of a sudden and turn around and write nasty pieces about me like your dirty little friend Edward Albee, in Harper’s Bazaar. It’s a piece that should bring him a great deal of embarrassment in time to come. God, what a smug little creature he must be, to write as though perfectly assured about his own future prestige.”

Long after “Fam and Yam’s” 1960 premiere, Albee included it in a touring bill of one-acts he directed himself called “Albee Directs Albee.” The production, a marathon that stretched over three evenings, came to Los Angeles in 1978.

If Albee felt the work was unfair to Inge, it’s doubtful he would have chosen to stage a revised version of the play in the city where Inge had died just a few years earlier. Perhaps Gussow’s biography subsequently changed Albee’s mind, but there’s probably a simpler reason for the play’s fade into obscurity.

“Fam and Yam” is a minor work in the way that his best one-acts (“The Zoo Story,” “The Sandbox,” “The American Dream”) are not. In her review of the 1978 production, Times theater critic Sylvie Drake identifies “Fam and Yam” as the weak link in “Albee Directs Albee,” calling the playlet “the slenderest of self-jibes” and a “threadbare spoof.”

This verdict holds up in 2022. The production at Pacific Resident Theatre is more of a historic curiosity than a satisfying theatrical discovery. But it still makes for an intriguing appetizer for a main course of Pinter.

“The Dumb Waiter,” co-directed by Elina de Santos and Fox, doesn’t disappoint. Downs (who’s doing double duty) and Anthony Foux have the Pinter-esque menace down pat. And it’s great to see actors immersing themselves in the cryptically precise language of two artists who were ushering in new styles of playwriting that would forever change how characters speak and act onstage.

‘Albee/Pinter’: ‘Fam and Yam’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter’

Where: Pacific Resident Theatre, 705½ Venice Blvd., Venice
When: Runs through Dec. 17. (Check theater website for schedules and possible extension)
Price: Start at $25
Info: (310) 822-8392 or pacificresidenttheatre.org/albee-pinter
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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