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 and The 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
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote