Party games are at the center of Edward Albee’s twisted masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, currently being revived on Broadway by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, starring actor-playwright Tracy Letts (famous for writing Pulitzer-winner August: Osage County, which premiered at Steppenwolf) and Amy Morton (one of the stars of August).
I mention this production’s Steppenwolf pedigree as a way of showing just how tight-knit this group of writer-performers truly is. It’s a quality that distinguishes the company’s productions, and this one, directed by Pam MacKinnon, in particular, from your run-of-the-mill acting companies — the sense that these actors are not only talented but familiar with one another to the point of being almost family.
This closeness works wonders for Albee’s 1962 play, which was chosen by the Pulitzer committee for its award for drama in 1963 only to be overruled by the trustees of the award at Columbia University, who objected to the play’s then-provocative content (namely language and sexually suggestive content). It’s a play that, for all its brutality, requires an intimacy within the two couples that are its subject — George and Martha, the boozy middle-aged gorgon and her punching bag, and Nick and Honey, the up-and-coming professor and his mousy wife.
The play begins as George and Martha return to their rumpled home (“What a dump!”) from a party at the university George teaches at. Martha is the university president’s daughter, and George is an associate professor of history who never quite made it up the chain of command. After some banter, the couple remember that they’ve invited a young couple over for drinks at the suggestion of her father. Even though it’s late, Nick and Honey soon at their door. Drinks are poured, and the night’s festivities are off to a rousing start.
It’s clear from the start that George and Martha have a jagged seesaw of a relationship; the two exchange barbs with glee, cutting each other down to size with a barbarity usually reserved for rougher sorts. Clearly, though, these two are closer to beasts than men or women, and their young acquaintances are soon entrapped in their “fun and games” (as the first act is titled in Albee’s script), subject first to spirited rounds of “humiliate the host” and “hump the hostess,” which soon give way to the rather less amenable “get the guests,” and an even more crooked final game that ought not be spoiled in any review of the play.
The brilliance of Albee’s play is in its ironclad structure, in which games at the expense of the evening’s hosts give way to games at the expense of the guests, and, finally, a game that breaks the whole system of playing apart. If the first act is long on exposition (and a little overlong in general), once the play’s engines are fully fired, there’s no turning away from its rhapsodic, almost musical, force.
As Martha, Amy Morton carries the bulk of the play’s weight on her back. Playing against the aging-beauty expectations for the role established by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film version (and others), Morton turns the monstrous Martha into a pitiable figure, driven in her sexual urges toward the handsome Nick by her inherited power as the president’s pup.
Morton is matched by Tracy Letts’s George, who’s brimming over with suppressed rage. It’s obvious that years of playing games have left him weary, and we’ve caught the couple on a night when the typically passive George just might hit his tipping point. Exuding an outward air of nonchalance even in the face of his wife’s impending infidelity, he’s clearly less A-okay than he’d usually care to admit. Lubricated by booze and bewilderment, it’s his turn to roar.
Nick and Honey, of course, are the victims of many of the evening’s calamitous revelations. Secrets from Honey’s past slip from Nick’s lips to George’s and back to the group again. As Nick, Madison Dirks does his best as a man who vacillates wildly (and occasionally unconvincingly) between playing the convivial cipher and asserting himself. As Honey, Carrie Coons plays drunk with ease and maintains the vulnerable edge the character requires.
Over the years, much of the shock value of this play has dissipated. We’re in an era now when sexual frankness and strong language are well-worn qualities (one only need walk down the block to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross for evidence of the latter), and the play’s final shocker of a twist has either been spoiled for most audiences or results in a pointed shrug as the curtain falls. What’s left after fifty years of “progress” in theatre is a play that’s still ripe for new interpretations. It would be nearly impossible to brand any actor in these two central roles as giving a definitive performance — there are so many directions in which to take this weary pair that that kind of gold-plated assertion would only hold its luster till the next acting heavyweights step into the ring.
Though it’s a long night at the theatre, clocking in at over three hours, it’s a production that begs to be seen for its mastery of Albee’s brand of psychotic realism, where it’s never clear who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, where a pair of couples ravaged by hooch have at it and come to their undoing. If we’re no longer as terrified of Virginia Woolf, she still holds us captive, as this production proves. The big bad Woolf remains as scary as she does (and she’s still fairly scary) because she reflects and refracts our own personal insecurities — as any truly great play does — and that’s timeless.