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Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard (courtesy of New York Times)

Do you know what it’s like to be deeply, unbearably in love, all the while aware that you can never completely trust the object of your affection? I would wager that Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard do, almost to the point of delirium.

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no intimate acquaintance with the personal lives of these dramatists. It’s just that their ruling passion, jubilant and exasperated, proclaims itself publicly in pretty much everything they write, including their new plays of this season (“Rock ’n’ Roll” from Mr. Stoppard, and “Homelife” and “Me, Myself & I” from Mr. Albee).

How could it be otherwise, when it’s the most basic tools of their trade that they so adore? The faithless lovers of Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee are, in a word, words.

Or to quote one of the interchangeable title characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the 1966 play that made the young Mr. Stoppard famous: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”

It is one of the livelier paradoxes of the English-speaking theater today that its two most dazzling wordsmiths are incurably suspicious of the language they ply with such flair. No other living playwrights give (and, it would seem, receive) more pleasure from the sounds, shapes and textures of their lavishly stocked vocabularies. And none is more achingly conscious of the inadequacy of how they say what they say.

This contradiction is not just an element of their style; it’s the essence of it. It’s what gives that distinctive, heady tension to their plays, the friction that sends the minds of receptive theatergoers into exhilarated overdrive. It is also what makes actors say that mastering these playwrights’ ornate, fast-footed language requires the sort of hard study demanded by Shakespeare.
Inordinately slick and fleet of tongue, Stoppard and Albee heroes — from the 19th-century Russian philosophers of Mr. Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” to the battling husband and wife of Mr. Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — are forever trying to pin down chameleon words, like so many adrenaline-drunk Ulysseses wrestling shape-changing sea gods. (Words, as one character in “The Coast of Utopia” puts it, “just lead you on” and “arrange themselves every which way.”) These heroes may not stand a chance of winning but, oh, what a beautiful fight…

That state of questioning every word can paralyze. There’s the sense with Mr. Albee and Mr. Stoppard that their characters keep talking as fast as they can because otherwise they would sink into silence and all the terrifying questions that lie within…

Within this shadowy context, so profound as to be immeasurable, Mr. Albee and Mr. Stoppard use bright, impeccably assembled dialogue to illuminate the provisional structures of daily life. They see the cosmic joke within the limitations of language and revel in it in ways that remind us of how much the Absurdists have in common with music-hall comedians.

Ben Brantley
New York Times