Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee’s master work has always been treated with great reverence, and is always talked about in hushed tones, indicating it is profound and probing in ways that few other domestic dramas have been.

There’s no question it’s a corking good story, and it holds our interest for the full three hours it takes to play itself out. But I’ve always questioned the need  for its length, and I don’t think the third act revelations are all that surprising. One thing is certain. Mr. Albee has captured his four characters to a tee. They first appear as a couple of comically bickering adults and later their young and somewhat vacuous but physically attractive late night guests.  These four at first glance might be taking us down the path of a small town sitcom, but  as layers are  peeled away, it becomes clear we are on a darker and more scary trip, through this long night’s journey into day. Very much like Eugene O’Neill’s equally long Long Day’s Journey into Night, it’s fascinating to watch four very complex people do their  dance and play out the games  they need in order to get through life’s tangled web.

Steppenwolf on Broadway: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(l-r) Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

What makes this an exemplary revival, is the extraordinary cast from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.  Tracy Letts, normally a playwright, who has been displaying his enormous range by writing about everything from trailer trash to very average folk in a coffee shop, to an entire clan housed together in Osage County, Oklahoma, now comes to New York as a magnetic, resourceful and arresting actor.  As George, he is the engine that drives the story to its surprising and very moving conclusion.

As his wife Martha, Amy Morton, another member of the Steppenwolf company, is trim and strong and vibrant, and a worthy sparring partner who keeps George satisfied, who gives him what he needs to remain in every sense her husband after more than 20 years of marriage. She is the daughter of the President of a small university, he an associate professor of history who has disappointed her in the ways in which he has handled her father. She loves her husband, but wishes he were more of a fighter. Or does  she?

Dirks Madison and Carrie Coon as the young couple who’ve been invited for a nightcap after a big party at the college, are absolutely perfect in representing the seemingly simple and attractive younger end of the teaching staff  (Madison plays Nick, a recently engaged member of the  Biology dept) and his  bride, Honey.

By the time they go home at the end of their night, filled with alcohol and exhausted from playing psychological games, they have had their secrets exposed, their illusions destroyed, and one wonders if they will be able to stick it out on this lovely campus in this sweet town, ill prepared as they are to cope with the sort of monstrous probing and poking that George and Martha put them through in just this one long night.

Pam MacKinnon has staged other Albee plays, and directed this one at Steppenwolf with this cast. Recently she distinguished herself again with her work on  Clybourne Park at Playwrights’ Horizon, at the Taper in Los Angeles and on Broadway. Her work flows effortlessly on stage here at the Booth Theatre, housed in the perfect set by Todd Rosenthal, which tells us much about the couple who live in it even before Martha takes one look at it and says the understated “What a dump.”  It may be a dump , but it’s one loaded with character, and  as I studied  it in detail during the long night, I found it makes a genuine contribution to the Albee text, telling us much about the couple who live in it, complementing the words of the play and adding much to our understanding of them.

Without the caliber of these acting talents, one would be tempted to notice that some of the play is overstated and even its title, catchy as it is, takes on a tad of pretension, as its comical reference to the big bad wolf is not worth the attention paid to it.

But rest assured, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will remain in the repertoire of all the serious regional theatres of the world, and will have major revivals on Broadway each time actors able to breathe life into these four characters are available.   Like Long Day’s Journey, August; Osage County, the best of  Miller, Willliams, Odets, Mamet,  Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen and on a different level, Alan Ayckbourn, theatre audiences will always be interested in characters of complexity who are exposed to us, warts and all, living their desperate lives.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is onstage thru February 24, 2013 at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th St (between Broadway and 8th Ave) NYC.
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