Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“That wasn’t a very nice thing to say, Martha.”

Few lines are as understated and accurate as this one, delivered early in the Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Pam MacKinnon, this exhaustingly brilliant production from the Steppenwolf Theater is now in performances at the Booth Theater on Broadway and defiantly proving that some works of drama are, in fact, timeless.

Returning to Broadway 50 years after its original production and a famed film adaptation, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of Albee’s most well-known and, it feels odd to say, beloved plays. Set in the living room of history professor George and his wife Martha’s home, following a faculty party, the play follows the two and a younger couple, new to the college campus, as they while away the wee hours of the morning with alcohol and games.

But these are not fun or innocent games; they are vicious games meant to attack and undermine each other. Married for more than 20 years, George and Martha are firmly established in a pattern of codependent emotional cruelty, fighting  each other at every turn. They are joined by the presumably mild-mannered younger couple, Nick and Honey, but as the drinks flow and the night progresses, all niceties are lost and the truth about both of these couples is exposed.

The master of the ceremonies of this night of horror is George, played by Tracy Letts in a masterful Broadway debut. A Tony Award winning playwright for August: Osage County, Letts gives an understated performance of fluid brilliance. It is almost impossible to look away from him onstage. With mussed hair and both his hands shoved into the pockets of his cardigan sweater, at first glance Letts appears to be a man beaten down by years of disappointment and bullying by his wife. For Martha does bully him. Constantly reminding him about his lack of academic and professional as well as personal achievements, she belittles and ridicules him in front of their guests repeatedly. But George does not take it lying down; he returns them with just as much zest and vigor as her. The two exchange acerbic back and forth in a rapid fire, seemingly never-ending battle of cruelty. One can only imagine how other nights in their living room have passed.

As Martha, Amy Morton gives a subtly nuanced performance that is both brittle and vulnerable. It is easy for Martha to overshadow George in this play but Morton’s Martha is more quiet (although not actually quiet) and textured; one can witness the disappointment that motivates her anger. There is a quiet resignation that hovers at the edges of her jabs and barbs and even as the cruelty of her actions increases, so does the sadness. When she attempts to explain the reasons behind her actions to the uncomprehending Nick, quietly describing how she is unable to accept George’s love and continues to hurt him rather than reciprocating his feelings, she depicts vulnerability and inspired sympathy – no small feat after a night of shouting and gin swilling.

Joining George and Martha are Nick and Honey (Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon), a young biology professor and his wife. They are not a perfect couple; despite their wholesome good looks, dark secrets lurk beneath their tasteful twill outfits. Both Dirks and Coon are excellent, with Dirks giving a restrained performance of masculine rage and Coons exhibiting outstanding comedic timing as Honey sinks deeper and deeper into a haze of brandy and unhappiness. However, I am happy to report that none of the actors resort to cheap drunken theatrics; even when Honey is clearly intoxicated, Coons still gives a performance that depicts depth and pain.

The pain of both Honey and Martha is visible, especially in the context of the play, which was first seen on Broadway 50 years ago. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was submitted for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama but the award’s advisory board objected to Albee’s script’s use of profanity and sexual themes. The board overruled the award’s advisory committee and no Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded in 1963. (One heard more scandalous comments being made in the theater’s lobby, both before and after this recent performance.)

When viewing both Martha and Honey, one must consider how the roles of women has changed a great deal since 1962, and in a life after The Feminine Mystique, the depression of a housewife is understandable and sympathetic. The audience laughed when George said disparagingly of Martha, “She’s a housewife. She buys things,” but I felt sorry for her as a disenfranchised woman who clearly is not satisfied with what her daily life offers her. And Honey, who clearly struggles to play the role of the proper professor’s wife, is unfulfilled and blames herself for her unhappiness when her husband is also contributing to their marriage’s struggles.

The internal chaos of George and Martha’s life together is represented in scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s set, which is cluttered and overflowing with books, haphazardly piled all across the stage, and costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ outfits aptly reflect the personalities of the characters. Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting is surprisingly bright, illuminating the truth about these people as the night wears on and they become more and more honest. But what is illuminated the most clearly is the fact that, despite first appearances, thanks to the incredible performances by Letts and Morton, George and Martha are each other’s equals, both in love and in war. Both loathing and longing for each other, the two continue to battle until all punches are pulled, all secrets exposed, and this exhausting and invigorating production’s curtain has fallen.

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