Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 25, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: Albee’s ‘Virginia Woolf’

It’s not likely that Edward Albee’s George and Martha will ever be

used, as are 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) the cruelly motivated marriage of

Albee’s George and Martha 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 (David Harbour) and Honey (Mireille Enos) from any sense of

emotional or intellectual security. The comely Harbour is excellent as

the ex-athlete whose confidence, however, quickly proves no match for

George’s more skillfully deployed attacks.

Although 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. 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. ***

– Simon Saltzman

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48th

Street. $45 to $90. 212-239-6200.


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