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A CurtainUp Review
Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By Elyse Sommer
. I've seen this prime theatrical example of an unhappily, undivorced couple play out several times — as a still inexperienced theater goer; on screen with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton whose flamboyant portrayals are said to have played a part in their final split; and six years ago with a born-to-be Martha Kathleen Turner and a somewhat surprising Bill Irwin. But Amy Morton and Tracy Letts have made this 50-year-old play into the newest, freshest drama on or off Broadway. Even if you're familiar with George and Martha's devastatingly funny yet awful alliterative games of "humiliate the host, hump the hostess, get the guest and bringing up bably" watching Morton and Letts play them is a thrillingly invigorating new experience.
What's shocking and revelatory about the current production is not the profanity to which audiences in 1962 were unaccustomed, but the more even playing field between George and Martha. Though always ending up giving as good as he gets from the more predatory, monstrous Martha, there's nothing passive about George as portrayed by Letts. His aggression is all out front. His anger and the pain it covers up don't just simmer, but starts at a boil. The way Letts manages to make his treacherous game--playing hysterically funny even as he reveals the cracks beneath the wisecracks, makes this almost more George's than Martha's story.
That's not to say that Morton's Martha isn't a more than worthy sparring partner. She allows herself to ease up on the showiness that has in the past been associated with the role in order to clarify the emotional neediness that feeds her predatory behavior and cruel put-downs. At the end of this long day's journey into night this ferocious George and more vulnerable Martha more than ever before make us understand and be astounded by the realization that there's more than frustration and venom that ties them together. There's more than a glimmer of genuine caring that survives even George's ruthless stepping beyond the boundaries to play the game that finally ends their game of self-delusion. It's all devastatingly believable with no more than a silent touch on the head when the three-hour battle scene finally ends in a truce that's as emotionally draining for the audience as the characters.
It's intriguing to see the relationship to later Albee plays about manifold self-deceptions, especially The Play About the Baby. It's also fascinating to see Letts act in a play that obviously influenced his own Pulitzer Prize winning dysfunctional family drama, August: Osage County in which Morton played a pivotal character.
Under Pam MacKinnon's sensitive direction, the secondary couple as played by Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks are not your standard issue hapless guests who mirror another George and Martha in embryo. Dirks' Nick (said to have been named gives hints of the marital tensions in the muscular, ambitious but biology professor that make him ripe for having his cool assaulted by the older marital warriors. Carry Coon's Honey displays her hysteric tendencies the minute she enters. Her nervous smile and mannerisms scream trouble head. She's crazier, less innocent young thing and Coon's nonverbal acting is so impressive that it's hard to keep your eyes off her.
The bravura acting is superbly enhanced by the designers. Todd Rosenthal's shabby faculty house , aptly lit by Allan Lee Hughes, is as cluttered with books as its residents marriage is with unresolved frustrations. Given the prodigious drinking they do (don't even try to keep count on how many drinks George pours), you wonder how they stop fighting and boozing long enough to read them. And with even the fireplace used as a bookcase, there's a chance that if Martha gets drunk once too often and tosses a lit cigarette into the fireplace, that will be one way to send the troubled marriage up in flames. Nan Cibula-Jenkins costumes, especially for Honey, are true blue to the era.
It's good to know that this century has produced a few exceptional new plays, like Letts' August: Osage and Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park , also directed by MacKinnon. It takes a production like this Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to make us fully appreciate what gives a book the durability to remain fresh past its era and open to astonishing new interpretations. That's why , whether you've seen this play before or not, I urge you to see this incredible cast.
For more plot details read our 3-in-1 review of Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin's George and Martha go here
For more about Edward Albee see Curtainup's Albee Backgrounder.
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