Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Steppenwolf's Scathing Revival

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, is scintillating, surprising, and still vicious after all these years.  At the conclusion of the three-hour performance by four remarkable actors of this searing play that Albee wrote fifty (!!) years ago, the ending was a bit of a let down.  And I thought, how sad is that.  Not for the play.  For me.  For American society.  For humanity.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I am.

Even the play's poster is clever.
Fifty years ago:  1962.  Witness to the last days of formality in public spaces, in clothing and behavior.  In 1962, we hadn’t experienced the assassinations of President Kennedy or Dr. King.  Nor had we seen a man walk on the moon.  And that’s only the rest of the decade of the play.  Certainly people did not have massive television sets in every room of their homes. 

1962:  George and Martha’s house, the living room.  The kitchen is off right, where there is clearly a back stairs because people go to the kitchen and end up coming down the stairs stage left into the living room from the bedrooms up above.  There is no television set in the living room.  Probably not in the whole house.  George and Martha don’t sit and get lost in the fictional problems of good-looking, polite characters on TV.  What need have they for such things when they can make their own soap opera/melodrama into sick sitcom.

The other thing that George and Martha — not to mention the audience — could never have imagined in 1962:  Jerry Springer.  Jerry Springer’s show was not the first nor will it be the last on which people abuse one another physically and verbally — to extraordinary heights of ignorance and nastiness — on national, and perhaps international television.  The aftermath of that television genre engenders the only potential weakness of the play:  the 21st century audience.

Are we so inured to the cruelty, the depravity and vulgarity of people playing out their wicked fantasies in public that the realization of what George and Martha have been doing for three hours is no longer shocking?  I know it was a shock when I first read the play close to 40 years ago, it was astounding.  I very much doubt I understood what was going on when I first saw the Burton/Taylor film.

By the way, Burton and Taylor did not, could not hold a candle to Tracy Letts and Amy Morton.  Some will consider that sacrilege.  They’re wrong.  Film acting is supposed to be a subtler art.  Instead the subtlety of portraying George and Martha, the infamous, iconic venomous American middle-aged married couple, was all on stage at the Booth Theatre.  Amy Morton’s Martha howls with the frustration and fury of disappointment, while Tracy Letts’ George was so sensitive to every nuance, every sound, every silence that I found myself clasping my hands so tightly together that they hurt.

Pam MacKinnon has directed her fine cast in this acerbic, wild, highly literate play like a whirling sculptor, with moments of devastating quiet and more that were exhausting in their vicious speed.  This Steppenwolf Theatre production is irreverently funny, surprisingly heartbreaking, and a wild ride.

Carrie Coon is Honey, academic wife of the new biology professor.  She is a petite, “slim-hipped” actress with a broad voice, almost a foghorn sound, who, according to the program, was also the fight captain.  Ms. Coon, who as Honey crowed, “Violence, violence!” in rapture, until it came and she curled into a ball, is not the fragile creature she appears.  Her Honey is a little mouse who roars — probably because she’s already drunk when she arrives.  I wonder if her voice is always like that or if she chose it to belie her diminutive stature and Honey’s scripted slim-hippedness.

Finally there’s Nick, the new biology professor, played by Madison Dirks.  He smirks.  He’s “baby,” “cutie,” “sweetie,” whatever Martha felt like calling him at the moment.  Sleazy and vulgar under his show of manners, that veneer is peeled back by alcohol.  In an excellently oily performance, Mr. Dirks was truly of this early 1960s era.
Carrie Coon as Honey, Madison Dirks as Nick, Amy Morton as Martha, and Tracy Letts as George.  (c) 2012 Michael Brosilow.

The script of this play actually provides titles for each of its three acts.  Act One is “Fun and Games,” Act Two is “Walpurgisnacht,” and Act Three is “The Exorcism.”  These are fitting titles, and if weren’t 1962, they could have been superscripted over the set.  The script is full of sharp, witty repartee, damaging lines that are now part of the American vernacular.  Think: “humiliate the host,” “hump the hostess,” “get the guests.”  Talk about a Halloween Haunted House.

By the third act, Amy Morton’s fully developed Martha is not drunk anymore, and her steaming rage escapes only weakly here and there, not full force as it had been for two acts, leaving her unprotected from George’s final game.  This act has a different tone.  Martha’s worked all the alcohol out, she’s worn out, and becomes a tad introspective in front of Nick.  Such conversations don’t always ring true, but at the level of exhaustion of the characters — not to mention the audience — we believe her.

The final “game” of the evening is intensely cruel, but inevitable because Martha broke the rules.  These are rather like the first rule of Fight Club.  And we all know that the first rule of Fight Club is “don’t talk about Fight Club.”  Martha talks and talks and talks.  And George cannot allow that to pass.  Mr. Letts’ embodiment of George inspires such empathy that we do not take him to task for his last desperate act.

Brilliant as the acting and directing is, it's all the better with costumes by Nan Cibula-Jerkins, which are precisely right for each character. Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes are both gorgeous, detailed, leaving some things there unexplained, just there. The room is rich and faded, full and messy, with books everywhere, scattered across the window seat, stacked in the fireplace and piled next to the drinks table.  Heating grates are set in the floor, ashtrays overflow, table lamps give off a beguiling glow.  Next to the front door an evergreen tree is seen through the front window, beyond which we see the glow of dawn as the play ends.  What a long night it’s been.  George and Martha are exhausted.  Nick and Honey are exhausted.  The audience is exhausted, but unlike the characters onstage, the audience is very happy in their exhaustion to have experienced such a powerful production of this shattering play.  Fifty years ago, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was cutting edge and Martha and George’s words sliced like razors.  They still do.

~ Molly Matera, off to get a Scotch to toast to the brilliance of Edward Albee in this exceptional and enduring work.

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