NY TIMES Rave for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf!

NY TIMES Rave for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf!

THEATER REVIEW

Taking No Prisoners in Boozy, Brutal Head Games

Tracy Letts in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? From left, Amy Morton, Tracy Letts, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon star in a revival of this Edward Albee classic, which opened Saturday at the Booth Theater.

By CHARLES ISHERWOOD

Published: October 14, 2012

 

Those keening words may never have cut so deep or hurt so bad as they do in the shattering revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that opened on Saturday night at the Booth Theater, precisely50 years to the day after this landmark drama first exploded like a stealth bomb on Broadway, establishing Mr. Albee as the most important American playwright of his generation and setting a brave new standard for truth-telling — not to mention expletive-spewing — in the decorous world of the commercial theater.

But the soul ache this superlative staging leaves behind is accompanied by a feeling far more emotionally enriching: the exhilaration of a fresh encounter with a great work of theater revitalized anew. This Steppenwolf Theaterproduction, the first necessary ticket of the fall Broadway season, establishes beyond question that at the half-century mark, an age when many plays, not to mention many people, are showing signs of flab, Mr. Albee’s scalding drama of marital discord still retains the bantam energy and strong bite of its youth.

The revelation here is the performance of Tracy Letts,making an electrifying Broadway debut as an actor five years after winning a Tony Award and subsequently a Pulitzer Prize as a playwright, for “August: Osage County.” Under the tightrope-taut direction of Pam MacKinnon(“Clybourne Park,” Mr. Albee’s “Peter and Jerry”), Mr. Letts brings a coiled ferocity to George that all but reorders our responses to a play that many of us probably thought had by now vouchsafed all its surprises.

Stalking the stage like an animal ever on the verge of pouncing, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his cardigan — as if only vigilant restraint could keep him from pummeling everyone in his orbit — Mr. Letts’s George sets the production’s tone of incipient threat from the opening moments. Alternating simmering disquiet with bursts of spine-chilling viciousness, Mr. Letts’s shlumpy but somehow magnetic George keeps stoking the suspense, moment by moment, for three harrowing and yet highly entertaining hours.

Technically, it’s true, George has always been the master of ceremonies in the bruising games of Mr. Albee’s play, which depicts an endless night of boozy revels and bitchy acrimony taking place in the disorderly living room of a history professor and his wife, Martha, who have invited another, younger couple over to join in the blood sport. It is George who dispenses the copious amounts of liquor, George whose verbal wit most dazzles, George who brings the savage rites to a close.

But the loudmouthed, take-no-prisoners brutality of Martha usually dominates the proceedings, as she keeps the volume permanently cranked up in their battle of wits and wills. Here Martha is portrayed in an intriguing, effective lower key by Amy Morton (the Tony-nominated star of “August: Osage County”), who puts a subtle emphasis on the bruised woman inside the brawling monster. Ms. Morton has the husky, bourbon-flavored voice that many a Martha before her has used to incendiary effect — most recently the blistering Kathleen Turner in the 2005 Broadway revival — but she chooses to keep it modulated for long stretches of the evening, and the predatory leer in Martha’s icy eyes alternates with flickering hints of the terror and grief that will ultimately engulf her.

That the night will indeed end in wholesale destruction is a given for all who know the play. But never before have I felt such a prickly sense of dread as the three acts unfolded in all their symphonic discord. Mr. Letts and Ms. Morton make clear that beneath the couple’s mechanical antagonism lies a profound emotional dependence with gnarled roots embedded deeply in love. We sense from the beginning how high the stakes are, and as we watch George and Martha perform their devilish waltz ever closer to the precipice, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Nick and Honey, hapless partners in George and Martha’s dark dance, are brought to vivid life by Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon. Ms. Coon depicts Honey’s vertiginous descent from tipsy to sodden to sickened with hilarious physical precision. Honey’s eyes seem to shrink into tiny slits from which she peeks out only intermittently, preferring the company of her own giddy thoughts sloshing around her head like the brandy in her glass. Against considerable odds, Mr. Dirks’s Nick retains his composure in the face of the predatory onslaughts of Martha and the castrating contempt of George, at least until the devastating scene in which George exposes the secrets that have already begun to poison their young marriage.

This is not, of course, the most brutal of George’s gambits. That he saves for Martha. But as Mr. Letts’s performance also makes clear, underneath George’s seeming mercilessness is a mournful sense of compassion. By turning their bitterness into a source of entertainment, George and Martha have distracted themselves from facing the truth of their disappointing lives. In bringing Nick and Honey’s shame into the light, George robs it of its power to sting. In the same spirit, and with a greater sense of sorrow, he knows he must destroy the comforting illusions he and Martha have created to anesthetize themselves against acknowledging how deeply they have been scarred.

It is an act of terrible spiritual violence, and like all violent acts it is shocking to witness — as is, I might add, the physical violence George inflicts on Martha, depicted with gut-churning realism here. But the final image of this exemplary production is, in its way, just as shocking. After the storms of cruelty, how wondrous and strange that a mere touch of the hand can startle us with its beauty and simplicity, its tenderness and truth.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee; directed by Pam MacKinnon; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates; production stage manager, Malcolm Ewen; general manager, Richards/Climan. The Steppenwolf Theater Company production, presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Susan Quint Gallin, Mary Lu Roffe, Kit Seidel, Amy Danis and Mark Johannes, Patty Baker, Mark S. Golub and David S. Golub, Richard Gross, Jam Theatricals, Cheryl Lachowicz, Michael Palitz, Dramatic Forces/Angelina Fiordellisi, Luigi Caiola and Rose Caiola, Ken Greiner, Kathleen K. Johnson, Kirmser Ponturo Fund, Will Trice and GFour Productions. At the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Jan. 27. Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes.

WITH: Tracy Letts (George), Amy Morton (Martha), Carrie Coon (Honey) and Madison Dirks (Nick).

TImeOut NY gives Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf 5 stars!

TImeOut NY gives Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf 5 stars!

Time Out says

Mon Oct 15 2012

Happy five-oh, George and Martha! Jesus H. Christ. The bog and the witch stuck it out for 50 goddamned years. The golden anniversary, isn’t that what they call it? So, what widdle prezzies did you kids get each other? Rings? Commemorative coins? How about a matching pair of carving knives with shiny gold handles? Yes, bring on the gleaming cleavers.

Anniversaries are central to Edward Albee’s illusion-popping Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The sodden night’s journey into dawn in which it takes place is, we’re told, the 21st birthday of George and Martha’s “son” (scare quotes unavoidable). And now, the latest Broadway revival opens the same day that the original did in 1962. Although this transfer from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company hews to the spirit and letter of Albee’s classic, it is no taxidermy job. Just as last season’s Death of a Salesman affirmed the power and relevance of Willy Loman’s tragedy by going back to the blueprints, this version of Virginia Woolf deals fair and square with the text, scouring away decades of accrued camp and pomp.

That image problem (which really began with Mike Nichols’s humorless 1966 film adaptation) reached its zenith when Woolf last howled on Broadway, in the 2005 revival that starred Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. That production wasn’t bad, but those two actors were too stereotypically right for their roles. She was a blowsy, slurring überbitch and he was a tin castrato, a thing of clipped locutions and constipated choreography. She was all appetite and he was all form. What was lacking, in director Anthony Page’s embalming, was a baseline reality. Not realism for its own sake, but so we could accept a spousal battle royal spilling out of the domestic sphere to become a bitter indictment of manifold hypocrisies and lies, from a barren marriage to the groves of academe and the hypertrophied American century. Yes, Woolf is a dense nightmare-drama of ideas penned in baroquely allusive lines (Walter Kerr cracked that people would talk like George and Martha “if the water pipes of personality had burst.”), but it is primarily the hysterical tragedy of two people who dreamed themselves three.

Albee wrote his masterwork in the wake of avant-garde successes such as The Zoo Story andThe American Dream. Woolf is a hybrid, transitional piece, neither sellout naturalism nor audience-offending absurdism. Rather, it’s a set of modern anxieties about homogenization, destabilized identity and other existential bugbears, carefully constructed inside the well-made, three-act drama previously associated with O’Neill and Williams. A successful Woolf balances verbal pyrotechnics with psychological acuity and coherence, all while respecting the play’s essential weirdness and mystery.

The revelation of Pam MacKinnon’s steady, keen and totally lucid staging is that George and Martha are real people, not just flamboyant delivery systems for Albee’s wit and venom. From the moment that history professor George (Letts) and his wife, Martha (Morton), stagger into their book-littered campus two-level (you can practically smell the mold and cigarette butts on Todd Rosenthal’s set), you believe them as a couple (and a heterosexual couple, as Albee always insisted). Real affection passes between them, even if the default mode is sneering contempt, and their shared love of verbal fencing (not to mention their secret child) unites them against the world.

Morton can do the braying harridan; we know that from her harrowing turn in August: Osage County. But she paces herself through the night, showing us when Martha picks a battle and when she tactically cedes ground. Just as Martha is less of a shrieking harpy, Letts’s George is not the typical mouse. Strapping and authoritative, Letts has a natural charisma that would seem at odds with George’s status as a personality-free failure. But even though Letts is physically imposing, he can crumble into petty self-loathing. There’s also a hint of the batterer in the practiced way that George yanks Martha by the hair. Morton gets her jabs in, but this is possibly the most Martha-sympathetic revival I’ve ever seen.

As the younger couple, biology department newbie Nick and his simpering wife, Honey, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon are perfect, variously serving as punching bags, sounding boards and surrogates for their horrible hosts. Inasmuch as these two offer the audience points of entry and identification, Dirks and Coon are multidimensional and charming, even when they’re craven or insipid. They also contribute to the abundant comedy that makes the piece’s three hours fly by. Whatever else are Woolf’s strengths or excesses (and it overflows and inculcates without apology), it should be crammed with corrosive, genuine laughs; otherwise, it can become a dull and pretentious lecture about the need to destroy artificial values and live in the world as it is.

Steered to that level of hard, vivid reality by MacKinnon’s keen eye and pitch-perfect ear for group rhythms, this may be the finest Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for years to come: brutally honest, bitingly funny, and confidently owned by four gutsy, cunning, powerhouse actors. The total absence of celebrity names on the marquee is a blessing; the work itself is the star.

Who knows if George and Martha ever make it to their golden anniversary? They’ve been together for 23 years. Can they have many more seasons before liver failure or domestic violence brings down the curtain? Against my better judgment, I’m optimistic. Perhaps it’s childish (or merely stupid) to speculate on the futures of fictional characters, but I like to imagine that after the third act’s cathartic exorcism, husband and wife sleep and wake—not only to epic hangovers—but also to a fresh start in life. After the headaches recede, hope grows, love renews. It’s either that, or they wipe off the blood and resume the game.—David Cote