New York City Theater
"Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
If you missed the bruising federal election, get your fix from the scorching revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” When this historic work opened 50 years ago, it set tongues wagging. Some theatergoers and critics were horrified. Some were baffled. Others were thunderstruck by the emotional fireworks.
That was then. We’ve been through so many more shocks to our system that we’re less shockable. Still, like all great works of art where meaning deepens with time, “Woolf” has taken on even stronger metaphorical leanings. George and Martha (Washington, for sure), have become less a couple steeped in unbridled hatred and more a pair of lovers embroiled in a relationship built on thwarted love as much as animosity. Like our country, their desire to get along only pulls them further apart.
Under Pam MacKinnon’s thrilling direction, George and Martha, as well as their guests, Nick and Honey, are caught between faith and reality, illusion and truth. Unable to tell the difference, they’ve sewn themselves into a shroud filled with hilarity and sadness.
On this night, George and Martha – he a history professor, she the daughter of the college president – have invited Nick and Honey for a nightcap. Nick is a biology teacher, setting up the conflict between humanities and science, heart and head. (“The West must eventually fall,” says George.) Honey is Nick’s inebriated, childlike, somewhat foolish wife,
Drinks will be poured, secrets revealed, reconciliations attempted, lives shattered. Nick is seduced by Martha, to an unconsummated conclusion, while Honey is humiliated by George. The game is “get the guest,” followed by “hump the hostess.”
This revival’s strength is in its insistence that George and Martha do, on some level, love one another and need pretense in order to go on. In Tracy Letts’s brilliant portrayal of George, particularly, we see a man fighting to preserve his sanity. No patsy, even in his quietist moments sitting in a chair while mayhem proceeds around him, he is a coiled spring.
As Martha, Amy Morton avoids shrewishness as she fights for her place.
”I wear the pants in this house,” she says, knowing that is more wish than reality. Madison Dirks’ genial-seeming Nick is volcanic when challenged, while Carie Coon is fascinating as the suppressed Honey. Both are demolished for being youthful avatars of the passions that George and Martha lost.
This is still strong stuff. Battling couples are hereby warned.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 15, 2012