Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 19, 2005
Kathleen Turner has said that she knew even when she was in college that she was born to play Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The good news is: she's right. From the moment she arrives on stage in the exquisite new production of Edward Albee's masterpiece, she embodies all the contradictions of this extraordinary character—the self assurance, the vulgarity, the intelligence, the sophistication, the wretchedness, and the pain. Her work here is revelatory. See this play.
See it because, too, you don't often have the opportunity to do so. Virginia Woolf? was last on Broadway in 1976, which means that more than one generation of theatregoers, mine included, has not been around for a first-class New York mounting of this play. Sure, you can see the famous movie version, but after you see it live—alive!—I don't think you'll go back to the celluloid anytime soon. This is authentically epic theatre of the sort that only happens once a season or so, if we're lucky. I was surprised to realize that the plays it feels most like are the O'Neill masterworks Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh—like them, Virginia Woolf? is grueling, complicated, feverishly emotional, naked, and perilous. Coming back into the light after three fraught hours in darkness with a family so archetypal yet so individual felt nothing short of cathartic.
The play is about George and Martha, a couple who have been married 23 years. He's a history professor at a small New England college, and she's the daughter of the college's president. She married him, she explains at one point, because she thought he was ripe for grooming to become her father's successor; she was wrong about that. They exist together now in a symbiotic relationship that's evolved into either death grip or mortal combat or both: the fire that each one spews is oxygen to the other.
We watch George and Martha on a particularly bitter night, very late, after a reception for new professors at Martha's father's house; it's early fall. Martha has invited a good-looking young biology professor, Nick, and his wife, Honey, to visit them. It's after 2:00 a.m.
The guests arrive, much to George's displeasure. Drinking, conversation, and more drinking ensues. In Act One—and George and Martha are as conscious as we are that there's a performance going on; Nick and Honey take much longer to understand this—the older couple shock, disarm, and eventually neutralize into submission the younger one. Martha takes the lead, volleying insults at and around the husband she regards as ineffectual and invisible—a flop, she calls him; a bog. He mostly takes it, though sometimes he returns the serve, usually with biting sarcasm ("Martha? Rubbing alcohol for you?"). It's mean and it's funny: they've played this game before; it's always about them (by which I mean to say that it doesn't matter who's in the room with them, as long as there's someone); there's perverse pleasure being had in the torturous discomfort that they're arousing in their visitors.
Act Two is all about destroying Nick. Here's where Albee gets political—this part of the play has more in common with The Zoo Story or The Goat than anything by O'Neill. Nick—ambitious, craven, hypocritical—epitomizes all that's rotten at the core of the American Dream. He doesn't deserve to get out of this place intact, and he doesn't. But Act Three is where the real explosion—implosion?—happens. Martha has gone too far, even for her; and George has to act. Realize that for George, being authentically roused to action is significant. If you know the play, I think you will be surprised—startled—jolted—by the potency of the climax; perhaps, even, by its nature. (If you don't know the play—and I'm not giving it away here—then all I can say is watch out.)
The moment that it all came together for me—when, conversely, I completely fell apart—arrived like a fast ball that I didn't see coming. Turner and her co-star, Bill Irwin, have a chemistry that's palpable and overwhelming; in their hands the final moments of Virginia Woolf? are so tender and raw and private that they're difficult to watch—painful and terrifying.
David Harbour and Mireille Enos, who portray Nick and Honey, begin by annoying us and end up showing us how essential they are to the fabric of the play and to George and Martha's relationship. Turner and Irwin dominate the proceedings throughout, though, as they're intended to; and when one of them is absent, he or she is missed. Turner's gruff deadpan, throwing away barb after barb, is delicious; her unguarded honesty is devastating (does Martha ever actually tell a lie during the play?). Irwin is great underplaying opposite her, getting as much mileage from the slyest hint of a smile as she gets from her (Albee's word) "braying." Big clownish moments—for here, George is revealed to be a kind of clown (Martha would concur)—work brilliantly: after you've seen Irwin stealthily aim a hunting rifle at Turner's Martha, you'll never need to see it again.
Anthony Page's staging is quick, strenuous, and exacting. The set, by John Lee Beatty, is a miracle of naturalism, with the occasional off-kilter touch that we don't notice until our attention is called to it, like an oversized set of windchimes by the front door or an almost mannerist chair to which George retreats with a book at one point when he's more or less—though only temporarily—down for the count. Jane Greenwood's costumes tell us all that they should about the characters. Peter Kaczorwoski's lighting and Mark Bennett's sound design are unobtrusive and effective, as they ought to be.
I'll say one more thing before leaving you to head to the Longacre Theatre (or to click on the "Order Tickets" button in the sidebar). I was struck by how prescient Albee is in this 43-year-old play. Martha is a kind of sacred monster—a woman of privilege and power who knows she can do whatever she wants and say whatever she wants. A deliberately coarse reminiscence about a gardener who "entered" her when she was 16, for example, can't be challenged in a room full of people who are all beholden to her father. Did Albee know that his creation would become emblematic of a whole class at the top rung of the American power structure?
That's all I have right now. See this play.