2:02 pm Oct. 22, 2012
If you think you already know George and Martha, the boozy, brawling couple at the center of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then you might not recognize the people prowling around the stage in the Steppenwolf Theater Company's 50th-anniversary revival that opened this week at Broadway's Booth Theatre.
George, the middle-aged associate professor who can't seem to move up the ladder despite being married the college president's daughter, is not the poor sap you remember. Played by Tracy Letts, best known to Broadway audiences as the author of August: Osage County, George lumbers back and forth across the stage like a bear in a cage. He may look docile, with his cardigan sweater and plastic-frame glasses, but he lashes out at anyone who comes too close. Even terms of endearment as innocent as "baby" are turned into weapons to hurl at his wife.
Speaking of Martha, she isn't the harpy played in the movie version by Elizabeth Taylor. Amy Morton, who garnered Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her role in August: Osage County, brings some subtler shading to her role as George's bored, frustrated wife. This Martha is warm and intelligent, the kind of woman who you might enjoy chatting with at a faculty party—at least until she downs a few too many cocktails. Even then, when she's eviscerating George for his failures as an academic, a novelist, or as a father, you understand that she is just as disappointed in herself. "I am not a monster," she insists later in the play, and for perhaps the first time, you agree with her assessment.
As sparring partners, Letts and Morton are more than evenly matched. Any time either of them seems to get the upper hand, the other lands a crushing blow. And although fists and voices are often raised, most of the war is waged with words. These are the "quips with a sting" and "jokes with a sneer" that Stephen Sondheim would write about a decade later in Follies.
Directed by Pam MacKinnon, who showed such confidence with last season's Clybourne Park, this production of Albee's most enduring work isn't a by-the-numbers revival. MacKinnon and her cast have combed through the text, finding new interpretations of even the best-known lines. When Martha stumbles into her living room in the first scene, she doesn't do the requisite impersonation of Bette Davis when she utters, "What a dump!" She's saying exactly what she means, and we know at once that she's exhausted by the state of her home, her marriage, and her entire existence. MacKinnon loses what is usually a big laugh, but the new line reading gives us a better understanding of the characters.
MacKinnon has put together a top-notch production team, especially Todd Rosenthal, who created the shabby living room where all the action takes place, and Nan Cibula-Jenkins, whose clothing designs are spot-on. She cleverly evokes the early '60s, when the play takes place, with the cut of a dress or the narrowness of a tie. You're aware that this is a period play, but costumes are never too costumey.
The play's younger couple, a hunky biology professor and his wife who drop by for a nightcap, are excellent foils for George and Martha. Carrie Coon is sweet and sad as the mousy Honey, but it's Madison Dirks who packs a wallop as Nick. He comes on strong early in the play, puffing out his chest when he talks a little too openly about his ambition to one day run the biology department, or perhaps the whole college. By the end, after being manipulated by George and Martha in a cruel game of "get the guest," he is visibly deflated. Even the suit that fit him so handsomely the first act seems to hang from his emaciated frame.
The physical changes in George and Martha are also striking. Exhausted by their years of secrets and lies, they end up seeming older, and perhaps a bit wiser. They've earned it, after all. To quote another famous Bette Davis line, the past few hours for them have been a "bumpy night."
‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ is playing at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets are $67 to $132 and are available at 212-239-6200 or http://www.telecharge.com/. All photos by Michael Brosilow.
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