Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton and Madison Dirks in a scene from
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)
This Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Edward Albee’s best play knocks all the many revivals so completely out of the water it’s barely possible to remember any of them. For once, George and Martha – yes, we’ve been on first name basis with them after all this time and all this forced familiarity – George and Martha are thoroughly, satisfactorily inhabited by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, tremendously good actors who are actors, not stars performing their glittery glamour in scabrous roles that allow them to be decorously undecorous, the way we thrill to see our stars, half naked. Not in the flesh, of course, that would – ugh –never do. But Tracy Letts is so without a doubt the best George ever and Amy Morton is shockingly good, both of them because we don’t know their faces yet as intimately as other practitioners of George and Martha so that we pay full attention to how damn good they are as monsters, something we’d love to be and wouldn’t dare.
That is the appeal of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Because you can’t like the play. Its people are revolting – thank God – and fascinating thereby. And they get to throw about Albee dialogue which is to die for, probably inspiring spirited conversation among many viewers and auditors until a little blood is let and everybody settles down to normal. Albee, the blood letter, not necessarily bloodsucker, loves to lacerate for its own sake. Or did, decades ago, when he was young and vicious. Now, he’s a Grand Old Man doing voice-overs. Oy. Serves him right. And with age came veneration, love. Could he ever write such laceration any more? Albee’s plays are noted for their brilliant first acts and crackling dialogue. Nobody disperses them better. Second acts? Another story. Everybody beats him on second acts. But not in this play. This play is wreaked, constructed to hell and gone, and we are all the beneficiaries. And victims.
George and Martha have been married forever, it seems. She is the daughter of the head of the university they live at, blessedly nameless, and he is a professor in the History Department. The game plan was that George would work his way to head of the History Department, thence to the presidency of the university when daddy retired. But daddy is a tenacious old buck and George foundered along the way in the History Department, earning Martha’s scorn, disgust, hatred and accompanying revilement. Which George does not suffer lightly. Or any which way. He can slam back with the best and does. They have been so engrossed in their war they wouldn’t know how to live without it. But to spice things up a bit, Martha invites a young university couple for drinks. George thinks it’s much too late in the evening. Martha is delighted.
Enter unsuspecting Honey (Carrie Coon) and leery Nick (Madison Dirks), said young couple. He’s in the Biology Department – we play on that – she’s clingy, his innocent wife. They don’t know it but they’re fresh meat. Martha loves fresh Meat. George can take it or leave it but when Martha segues into higher battle mode, he does not back off an inch, he goes for her jugular as she, for his. That these kids are their foils, their weapons as well as their prey is just part of the mixing it up. Naturally, all of this could not be conducted without basic fuel. Have we ever seen so many drinks poured and imbibed? And when Honey’s little brandies overtake her unaccustomed constitution, as she gets quietly drunker and drunker, she has us all rolling in the aisles even though Martha is in full rant as we succumb to Honey’s marvelous mug. One might harbor a suspicion that this was part of director Pam MacKinnon’s superb mastery of the play but one might also harbor that it was too sweetly a bitchy moment to pass up if one were a director so inclined. It’s a moment to treasure.
There are scads of them. All four actors are marvels. Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins leaves no stitch unturned in outfitting them and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal has plotted his living room so inevitably that these folks could live here if they don’t tear themselves limb from limb. One last note: only when George has wrung the last drop of juice out of Martha do we fully comprehend how superb a job Amy Morton has fashioned as Martha, once delusion shorn. Go. Have yourself a full sating for that bile you secretly hanker for. It’s Albee time. Long may it run. Again.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (through February 24, 2013)
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street at Shubert Alley, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or http://www.virginiawoolfbroadway.com