Saturday, September 29, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Reviewers are generally embargoed from writing about shows until their opening nights. The producers of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opted for a different approach, inviting theatre bloggers to the first preview and giving us the go-ahead to write about the show immediately. They knew they weren't taking any chances--this production has already played Chicago and D.C. and received rapturous reviews. The only possible hitch would be if expectations had been raised too high.

No such problem. Thanks to exceptional direction and acting, this beautifully accomplished production hits every harrowing, exhausting, and funny note in Edward Albee's brilliant play.
Photo: Michael Brosilow
Carrie Coon is far and away the best Honey I have seen. In the least interesting, least developed role, she registers as a three-dimensional human being and not a living prop. And Madison Dirks is quite effective as Nick. You can feel his swagger and humiliation collide.

Tracy Letts is a full-blooded George whose deference to Martha is a tactic rather than a surrender. His love and his anger are both vividly etched, and the places where they overlap sizzle. He is a man who knows his limits but also his strengths. His final act is the logical conclusion to the evening, rather than the last-minute bravery of a timid man.

Amy Morton as Martha is as brilliant as I hoped she'd be. Having seen her superb performance in August, Osage County, I knew that she would be a powerful Martha. But she's more than that. She often underplays, making her Martha both less and more monstrous and completely original. She makes palpable Martha's addiction to drama--and to an audience--and how it exhausts and exhilarates both her and George.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is often presented as a domestic Grand Guignol, but this amazing production feels almost realistic as four deeply damaged people fight for their lives, or their sanity, or at least to make it to another day. Tremendous credit must go to Pam MacKinnon, whose clean, smart direction allows the play to be new and fresh without shoehorning it into some dumb concept, as so many revival directors like to do. 

The play itself remains breath-taking and odd and overwritten and yet not and wily and mean and emotional and shocking. I can't imagine how it must have felt to see it in 1962, but the fact that it was denied the Pulitzer Prize because it was not "uplifting" enough is surely a clue.

A few details struck me this time around. First, in many plays, movies, and TV shows, there comes a moment where one character should--and would--just leave. But the writer has to make the person stay, no matter how unconvincingly, so that the story won't abruptly end. Nick, on the other hand, has genuine reasons to stay. Martha would not have invited Honey and him over otherwise--as an experienced user, she can easily spot a victim.

Another overused--and often misused--device is the character who talks to him- or herself when alone. Again, this can be awkward and off-putting. But Martha talks to herself because she is the person she likes least in the world, and to sit quietly is out of the question. So she natters along, and it's convincing and elucidating and sad.

I think--and perhaps this is sacrilege--that the play could use to lose 10 or 15 minutes. But, then again, maybe that extra time is needed to completely exhaust the audience as the characters are completely exhausted. It's Long Night's Journey Into Day, but so much more perceptive and rich than O'Neill's work. 

At the first preview, the cast received a ragged standing ovation. It took a while for the audience to find our feet after having had them so thoroughly knocked out from under us.

(press ticket, first preview, third-row-center mezzanine)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! It flew by--and it's not short.