Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Broadway Theatre Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

From Steppenwolf to Broadway: George and Martha Celebrate their 50th with a long trail of discontent

Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton and Madison Dirks. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’s second Broadway revival in just seven years (a 2007 production starred Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner) but only its fourth showing on The Great White Way since its premiere in 1962. It’s difficult to conceive of an audience unfamiliar with Edward Albee’s seminal play of marital discontent, but it’s not so hard to comprehend the effect it had on when it originally premiered: while audiences were transfixed (except for, apparently, Stephen Sondheim who finds Martha monotonous — yes, really) and it went on to receive countless Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize committee “recommended” the play only to have the Pulitzer board refuse to bestow the award due its perceived vulgarity (no prize was awarded in 1963).

This year, the ever-cantankerous and controversial Edward Albee received the Steppenwolf treatment for what is arguably his finest play, on this, its 50th anniversary. George Segal, who played the young, ambitious Nick in the Oscar-winning 1966 film has said, “From an acting point of view, [Virginia Woolf is] bulletproof. It acts itself, in a way.”

Let’s hold off on that hyperbole, George.

While Segal’s Nick earned him an Oscar nomination, it’s not quite the same slam-dunk for Madison Dirks who currently portrays the biology professor that unwittingly walks into a lion’s den with his pretty, dim wife. Dirks is fine, if too old for the role, admirably bracing himself — and then pushing back, in bright bursts of aggression — against George’s verbal swings and Martha’s predatory advances. But as Honey, the insipid wisp-of-a-wife who was pregnant and then — POOF! — was not, Carrie Coon is the tipsy and tittering scene-stealer, giddily drowning herself in Brandy. Sodden and swaying, her eyes shrinking to sharp slits, Coon maps an astonishing and hilarious physical progression from silly-cognizance to sloshy-sickness.

But Nick and Honey are but punching bags and playthings for George and Martha to alternately abuse and coddle when they tire of doing the same to each other. Resentful of the paths their lives have taken — he, the disappointing son-in-law who never made History dept. head and she, the bitter college grad turned housewife — they destructively claw at each other with lacerating wit. With clinking glasses sloshing over with booze, they thrash about the stage — Todd Rosenthal’s vision of a messy academic’s bi-level littered with books and booze and what could only smell of musty, cigarette smoke — in a desperate attempt to distract themselves from their own deep sorrow.

The husky-voiced Amy Morton, icy and steely in shapeless sweaters and severe headbands, is more awkward than believable in her attempts to seduce the younger Nick. She packs none of the over-the-top heat of, say, Elizabeth Taylor; rather, each of her actions and reactions is methodical. This is not the emotionally volatile Martha prone to hot bursts of anger, but one who tactically picks her battles and then backs off when faced head-on with a much stronger foe.

And with this less-showy and strangely more sympathetic Martha, George is no longer her whipping boy; thrusting his fists into his stretched-out cardigan, the physically imposing Tracy Letts acts the simmering and tightly-wound as well as he writes it (August: Osage County): crumbling into self-loathing one minute, he one-eighties into vicious lashing the next. Martha may start the evening’s game, but it’s George who effortlessly and ruthlessly controls, and then finishes, it.

Under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, this grim and unbalanced game unfolds at a steady pace, highlighting Albee’s savage humor but also subduing its absurdity. Morton and Letts are believable sparring partners, but the production feels too controlled; it lacks an element of terrifying discomfort — the potential that this couple could become completely unhinged at any given moment. Despite their dysfunction, it should be apparent throughout that there is a, if ever-so-buried, love between the couple that has gone to hell and back. And yet it is only in the unsettling quiet of the final scene that we get a glimpse of this George and Martha as life partners, tenderly clinging to each other, shattered and heartbroken by the game life has played on them.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
September 27, 2012 – Open-ended
Opened  October 13, 2012

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