NEW YORK — PLAYWRIGHT Edward Albee's Broadway debut in 1962 looked to be the auspicious start of a long career. His now-classic drama, ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' won its author prestigious prizes such as the New York Drama Critics' Circle and Antoinette Perry (Tony) awards.
Widely hailed as the most promising playwright of his generation, Mr. Albee also garnered two Pulitzer Prizes for subsequent dramas produced on Broadway, ``A Delicate Balance'' (1967) and ``Seascape'' (1975).
Fast forward to 1993. It has now been a decade since the last Broadway production of an Albee play, ``The Man Who Had Three Arms'' which closed after 16 performances. Critics wonder if his career has ended.
Enter the Signature Theatre Company, an off-Broadway theater, which has renewed interest in Albee's work by devoting an entire season to his plays. The one-acts ``Listening'' and ``Counting the Ways'' will receive their first New York staging this month. In the spring, the world premiere of Albee's ``Fragments'' will also be produced by the Signature company.
The reason for Albee's virtual disappearance from the Broadway stage after such a bright start may say more about the state of American culture than it does about Albee.
In a recent interview, Albee spoke of the early 1960s as a golden age of drama.
``There was a brief period in our history - interestingly enough parallel to the Kennedy years - when a number of us thought that everything was possible,'' Albee says, ``that perhaps Broadway would open up to serious plays.''
The idea of Broadway as a New Frontier for challenging drama ``got cut down,'' Albee says, just as President Kennedy did. The playwright went to Europe to stage his ``tougher, more serious plays.''
Today, ``junk,'' according to Albee, dominates major New York theaters. With sentimental musicals, London imports, escapist comedies, and an overload of revivals, the Great White Way resembles the Night of the Living Dead more than a cultural incubator for the best and brightest writers, he says.
Taking up his mantle as the conscience of American theater, Albee blames ``the people who hire the critics'' for our cultural anemia. Over the years, critics have panned many of Albee's works. ``Second-rate doodle,'' ``One of the worst plays about anything, ever,'' and ``baloney'' are snippets from the more brutal reviews.
``I have never gotten unanimously good reviews,'' the playwright acknowledges. ``If I had, I'd worry about it.''
Albee is still the unrepentant provocateur he was as a youth, when he got expelled from a string of prep schools. He gives the impression that there is little prospect he will mellow. ``I would like to think I can be as abrasive as ever,'' he says.
Although he has been as often lauded as condemned, the playwright says he believes the critical barbs result from the obstreperous messages in his plays.
``What is being communicated,'' he says, ``is what the people who create our culture don't want to hear.''
For him, the artist is an outsider who punctures civilization's overinflated smugness. Albee stridently denounces American society as ``governed by fear, ignorance, shortsightedness, and self-indulgence.''
`The difference between government and great government,'' he says, ``is that one kind does what the polls tell them the people want, while great government does what the people need.''
Not content to repeat himself, oversimplify, or pander to public expectation, Albee is difficult to pigeonhole. He experiments with form and technique, vacillating between realism and surrealism.
His 26 dramas, typically long on talk and short on conventions like plot and action, resemble dissonant musical compositions. Some works - like ``Box,'' which consists of a disembodied voice droning nonsequiturs, interspersed with intervals of silence - are notoriously obscure.
Albee subscribes to the Theater of the Absurd's existentialist precept that advises, he says, ``Live fully. No crutches. Don't fall back on anything. You, out there, all by yourself. Make something of your life.''
Albee forces his characters to strip away illusions that render life sterile. Like George and Martha in ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' they confront the horrors of reality in order to grow.
``The least-dishonorable failure is the only honorable goal.'' Albee says, adding, ``You do as much as you possibly can, being as aware as you possibly can, as long as you possibly can.''
``I'll keep writing about the same stuff until people start behaving,'' Albee vows.
Although critics have tagged him a nihilist, he insists that his goal in writing plays proves him to be ``exactly the opposite. It's an attempt to break down corrupt structures and create more useful ones.'' Art for Albee is ``not only decorative. The thing to do is to write a play that is both useful and good.''
Albee is one of American theater's most gifted playwrights. His acerbic dialogue bites like a viper, while shining with felicities of language, trenchant observations, and incinerating wit.
With such a surfeit of talent, is he ever tempted to attract a mass audience by giving commercial theater what it wants: a bottom-feeding, easy-listening play? ``No,'' he answers without hesitation. ``I give them what they should want. Or, at any rate, what I think they should want.''
* The Signature Theater Company presents two related one-act plays, ``Counting the Ways'' and ``Listening,'' by Edward Albee through Dec. 5 at New York's Kampo Cultural Center. Three one-act plays, also by Albee, ``Box,'' ``The Sandbox,'' and ``Finding the Sun'' run from Feb. 4 to March 6, 1994. His latest full-length play, ``Fragments,'' makes its New York premiere April 8, 1994.