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Theater Review: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Dysfunction, par excellence

Diana Barth Created: October 25, 2012 Last Updated: October 29, 2012
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Madison Dirks as Nick, Tracy Letts as George, and Amy Morton as Martha in a scene from Edward Albee’s most famous play. (Michael Brosilow)

Madison Dirks as Nick, Tracy Letts as George, and Amy Morton as Martha in a scene from Edward Albee’s most famous play. (Michael Brosilow)

NEW YORK—Important plays can go beyond the strictures of time. Important plays can support a variety of interpretations. Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” more than accomplishes the foregoing.

First presented on Broadway in 1962, the current production has been transferred to Broadway courtesy of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The actors and creative team, all from Steppenwolf, are skillfully guided by director Pam MacKinnon, a noted interpreter of Albee’s works as well as of the award-winning “Clybourne Park,” recently on Broadway.

At the opening, George and Martha have just returned from a party given by Martha’s father, the president of a small New England college, where George holds a position as a history professor. The couple has been drinking and continue to do so as they await the arrival of a younger couple, Nick (Madison Dirks), a newly hired biology professor and his wife, Honey (Carrie Coon), described as mousy.

Arguably, the big surprise in this production is the dominance of George (Tracy Letts), the better or worse half of the married duo, depending on how one views this ever-bickering couple.

(L–R) George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) entertain a couple new to the college where George teaches. Joining the college’s staff is Nick (Madison Dirks) and his wife, Honey (Carrie Coon). (Michael Brosilow)

(L–R) George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) entertain a couple new to the college where George teaches. Joining the college’s staff is Nick (Madison Dirks) and his wife, Honey (Carrie Coon). (Michael Brosilow)

In most productions, it is Martha (Amy Morton) who rules the roost, with near-passive George cowering under her verbal and emotional blows. But here, George’s biting comments, sometimes delivered by Letts with levity, never fail to hit their mark, and it is Martha who is continually kept off balance.

Letts, best known as the author of the prize-winning “August: Osage County,” in which Morton starred, plays George superbly. By turns he is sarcastic, witty, cruel, and passive, never letting anyone get the better of him. His verbal duels with Nick subtly hit the mark, as George efficiently and seemingly light-heartedly puts down the younger competitor.

Morton’s Martha lacks the bite of some other Marthas (there was Kathleen Turner a few years ago on Broadway; Elizabeth Taylor in the film version), but she does offer an appealing vulnerability at times. She also makes clear how dependent she is on George, in spite of her continual verbal jabs.

George (Tracy Letts) is surrounded by his books at home in the wonderful set design by Todd Rosenthal. (Michael Brosilow)

George (Tracy Letts) is surrounded by his books at home in the wonderful set design by Todd Rosenthal. (Michael Brosilow)

It’s easy to see how truly weak a character she is, in spite of her surface belligerence. She often refers to “Daddy,” who has obviously run her life until she grew up and married George, another Daddy figure, though she would be the first to deny it.

(Has anyone ever noted that George and Martha are the names of the first “parents” of the United States? As in George and Martha Washington? Is playwright Albee making some kind of point?)

The evening progresses as a series of games, with Honey sometimes having to leave the room to vomit, as much from the emotional stress as from the overflow of alcohol she has imbibed.

Later, an aggressive move by Martha throws things into greater disharmony than usual. She makes public a painful secret that has long been kept under wraps, and the true relationship of the couple achieves an unexpected poignancy as the play ends.

Letts’s performance is a towering tour-de-force, with Morton supplying a fine foil. This pair played these roles in Chicago for some time, and their familiarity imbues the performance with a great deal of depth. Dirks and Coon offer good backup.

Todd Rosenthal’s set design is perfect as the living room of a busy, bookish college professor in a small town. Costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins are appropriately low key.

A terrific presentation of a major work by, arguably, America’s greatest living playwright.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
Open Run

Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: diabarth@juno.com.

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