Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner
It’s not likely that Edward Albee’s George and Martha will ever be used, as are their namesakes, the more famous father of our country and his wife, as an example of a good/solid marriage. This is despite Albee’s allusion to the first George as an advocate of truth, a quality that seems to have not been passed down to the current George. When it comes to fueling (think liquor and lots of it) their cruelly motivated marriage through one long and harrowing night, I suspect that the ferociously sparring George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf have no peers or competitors in all of American dramatic literature.
Propelled by their own self-destructive impulses, but profoundly energized by their vindictively interpolated psychological party games, namely Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess, George and Martha have fascinated and perplexed theatergoers since they first went at each other and others, over 40 years ago. The sturdy revival, under Anthony Page’s direction, configures the self-immolating/self-perpetuating agenda of both Martha and George into a steely, if not always electrifying (as it should be), configuration.
This production will, however, be a revelatory one for those who have already experienced a more traditional consideration of Albee’s complexly interdependent provocateurs. Most familiar to many is the memorable 1966 film version that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at their most vitriolic. In itself, the casting of Bill Irwin, as the presumably thwarted college professor and Kathleen Turner, as his abrasive humiliating wife, is an adventurous approach. For the first part of the play, Turner’s sensual lumbering about and her deep and garbled whiskey-voice put-downs dance rings around Irwin’s belittled demeanor, his manner appearing as weary as his tweed slacks and well-worn cardigan vest. Turner, who has appeared (in the nude) most recently on Broadway in The Graduate , validates her talent even more conspicuously as Martha, a role that insists that she reach out, as the play progresses, for emotional textures that are riveting and poignant. Yes Martha doesn’t always have, or, indeed, expect to have the upper hand in this endurance test of wits and resentments.
Although Irwin’s forte as an actor/mime has been duly appreciated on and off-Broadway, I doubt if he has ever had the opportunity to explore as complexly transfiguring a character as George, who, in Irwin’s performance, seems more divisively calculating than virulently explosive. Irwin’s slow boil, marked by physical uneasiness, is fascinating in contrast to Turner’s occasional if inescapable slippage into defeatism. Not quite revisionist in its stars’ interpretations, the play may be sacrificing its volatile dynamics for the sake of human dimension. That works.
George and Martha may be compelled to continue their excoriating war of barbed insults for reasons that are partially explained. A large part of their nasty marriage is based on a let’s pretend game of having a child. But it is when Nick, a newly hired professor of Biology, and Honey, his odd (no other word for it) wife, get caught in their web does George and Martha’s prescription for their pain become therapeutic. Their trap is well calculated to disarm and disengage Nick and Honey from any sense of emotional or intellectual security. The comely David Harbour is excellent as the ex-athlete whose confidence, however, quickly proves match for George’s more skillfully deployed attacks and Martha’s taunting sensuality.
Although Mireille Enos seems to be channeling Sandy Dennis, the role’s originator, to an almost uncomfortable degree, she is, nevertheless, as one with the intellectual deficiencies of her character as she is with the brandy that she guzzles with increasing abandon. The play’s dramatic cornerstone is the blatant manner in which the self-assured Nick and the anything but Honey are goaded and guided by two experts into unwittingly exposing and facing the corruptness of their own marriage/relationship. Although our eyes don’t miss the number of times glasses of booze are re-filled, there is also time to appreciate John Lee Beatty’s dark wood-paneled living room (which Brian MacDevitt incomprehensibly keeps well lit despite the journey from dark to dawn, diminishing some visual impact to add to the drama of progressive time/emotions). Notwithstanding the play’s three-hour length, the little singing at the end of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” should send audiences out on a boozy high.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street
For tickets ($90, $75, $45) call 212 – 239 - 6200