Jane Alexander (© Tristan Fuge)
Jane Alexander
(© Tristan Fuge)
"I have never in my long career done anything -- a reading or a play -- of Edward Albee's. And that was a singular omission since he is arguably the greatest living playwright we have," says multi-award winning actress Jane Alexander, who is correcting the oversight by taking on the titular role in the Off-Broadway revival of Albee's mordant dramatic comedy The Lady from Dubuque, which begins previews on Tuesday, February 14 at the Pershing Square Signature Theater Center.

"I certainly know Edward. I've been his dinner party companion, happily, at many events through the years, and he and I have sat on juries for plays and awards. But I just never had the opportunity to do one of his plays," the actress explains. "It is kind of strange because I do consider myself as having an affinity for his characters. I've always felt that I knew them -- I went to the same kind of all-girls schools and things like that."

In The Lady from Dubuque, questions about what's going on are not just inevitable, they are actually encouraged by the playwright. The play opens with two couples playing an increasingly hostile game that is based on questions of identity. When Alexander makes her unexpected entrance, no one -- neither the characters on stage nor the audience -- knows what to make of her. The one thing it seems fair to assume is that she is not who she says she is.

The title is believed to be Albee's playful reference to The New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross's statement that his magazine was not edited for the old lady in Dubuque. "I have some ideas of my own," Alexander says, "but I'm not going to reveal them because you want to keep some suspense and surprise for the audience. And we still play exactly the words, and play the reality of what Edward wants."

As Alexander admits, she needed some time to get her head around Albee's sometimes mysterious text. "I had to read the play several times; it certainly works on a lot of different levels. But I think the best way, probably, to approach Edward's plays is to just play the play, and then it reveals itself," she notes.

Indeed, Alexander says Albee's work is not unlike that of Harold Pinter. "I had done quite a bit of Pinter when I was younger and I often was mystified by what the whole thing was. Then you do it and you find it has an intuitive and an emotional intensity that you didn't count on," she says. "And Albee is very precise, more so even than Pinter. He knows exactly what he wants in terms of punctuation, grammar, language and inflection."

The work's uncomfortable theme of death and dying -- the hostess in the play has a terminal disease -- could have had something to do with its very short-lived Broadway run in 1980. But Alexander has faith in modern audiences.

"It was a very different climate, as far as I am concerned," says Alexander. "We hadn't fully explored the idea of hospice care for the dying, or compassionate choices for dying. I remember reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross' On Death and Dying in the 1970s and it was an eye-opener for many of us. What I love about this play is it really hits it head-on. It's unbearable in some instances." Some people are just going to reel and roll back, and maybe not be able to get back into it again, and others will sit there, I hope, saying 'Oh, my gosh, this tells it like it is.'"

Alexander, who took a break from acting to head the National Endowment for the Arts from 1993 to 1997, is thrilled to be working at a theater like Signature, that can do such a challenging play. "I would like to see more public-private partnership in the arts and a little bit more public money," she notes. "For regional theaters to keep their head above water, they have to do ultra-commercial work, and very often new works, new playwrights and re-looking at old works get lost in the shuffle."

While Alexander has kept busy in films and television, she'd be happy to devote more time to doing theater -- under the right circumstances. "I really love to be in new cities and doing work in new communities. If I had my youth again, and if I didn't have family that I adored to be next to, I would be out there all the time," she says.

"But I've had a very full life and a wonderful career. And, you know, when you get to my age there are not that many great roles," she notes. "I wrote down a bucket list of the plays that I wanted to do when I was 16 years old. Believe it or not, of the 15 or 16 plays that I had on that list, I think I've done at least 12 of them. So I've done practically everything that I wanted to do and I feel very gratified."