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A CurtainUp Review
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee's "long night's journey into day" depicts the take-no-prisoners game-playing of two toxic spouses. Experts in serial belittling, George and Martha indulge in Olympic imbibing as they entertain and undermine a younger couple who lack the illusions that protect a marriage from too much truth.
But tonight George goes too far — farther than usual in this production. By the end Albee's Achilles-heel fighters must face their feelings minus what Ibsen called the "life lies."
Rich with telling mood shifts, Pam MacKinnon's revival, Steppenwolf's second stab at this show, underlines the fun behind the games before miring us in recrimination and betrayal. A master of passive aggression, Tracy Letts (whose Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County mirrors similar family dysfunction) delivers a George who cracks as he wisecracks, usually at the same time. But this George is almost murderous in second-act game-playing, achieving a ferocity seldom seen even in this relentless hatefest. Just as Albee tests the limits of how far two spouses can push each other without unleashing more than they can take back, MacKinnon's passive-aggressive, three-act pugilistics lands K.O. after K.O., almost exhausting the play's capacity to still shock, nearly 50 years after its premiere.
Though lacking the faded majesty of Albee's "earth mother," a still- sensuous Amy Morton shows how Martha's thwarted maternal impulses have been twisted into sexual predation. This controlling virago is used to having her way with her cowed husband and the faculty newbies she beds, human sacrifices to all that's missing in her life. What takes her by surprise as much as by force is George's ruthless willingness to break the rules of the last game until it can no longer be played. The audience is equally astonished.
As neurasthenic Honey, Carrie Coon finds the heartbreak in hysteria, managing to be vulnerable and ridiculous at the same time. Already worn down by life, Madison Dirks is not the usual muscular, musky Nick. But his weakness makes him ripe for conquest by an older couple who, like the cosmopolitan one in Albee's The Play About the Baby, are capable of manifold deception — of themselves even more than others.
At play's end we usually see George and Martha, crushed into honesty as Martha sobs on the living room couch and the sun streams through the front window. But here the couple, reduced by refugees in their own home, are deep downstage and on the floor, surrounded by a cold spot while the dawn comes up without any redeeming sunlight. It's not at all clear that George and Martha can heal more than they hurt.
For more about Edward Albee see Curtainup's Albee Backgrounder.