In Act 2 of the latest revival of ‘‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ on Broadway, a desk lamp was accidentally broken on opening night.
An errant swipe during an argument shattered the bulb and a puff of cloud went up to heaven. The actors went about their business calmly, unperturbed. But when Act 3 opened, the lamp was restored. Its light worked perfectly.
If only the characters onstage were as easily repaired.
This masterpiece of a play by Edward Albee is now celebrating its 50th anniversary on Broadway with an astonishing production courtesy of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Time has not dulled a word of the play, but this group manages to add even more illumination, despite the broken lamp.
Starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as the battling couple at its heart and terrifically led by director Pam MacKinnon, the ‘‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ that is being played at the Booth Theatre is vicious and yet hysterically funny, crisp and loving and savage.
Taking place over several alcohol-fueled hours on a New England university campus in 1962, the play centers on George, a seemingly weak-willed history professor, and his wife, Martha, an abrasive daughter of the college president. They've have been sparring with each other for most of their 23 married years. They seem to go over and over the same rutted terrain.
After a party one night, Martha has invited Nick, a young, ambitious biology teacher, and Honey, Nick’s meek wife, to come over for a drink or two or 10. That sets the stage for George and Martha to go at it — a noisy, emotional bloodletting and recrimination-tossing fight that lasts into the wee hours.
‘‘In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck,’’ George tells his wife, as if serving her an appetizer. Martha lets loose her own opening salvo, calling George, ‘‘A great... big... fat... FLOP.’’
Letts as George spends the night with his hands stuffed in an old cardigan or sometimes resting self-consciously on his paunch or fiddling with his glasses. He is quick to anger and will happily grapple, but also will back down if need be. He’s playing a long game and Letts allows years of pain and frustration to seep out of a semi-broken man. It is simply a stunning performance, an actor at the top of his game.
Morton as Martha is no pushover either and her disappointed wife is ferocious in a low-cut top, very provocative and yet just as needy and shattered as her husband. The comfort Letts and Morton radiate on stage comes from years together at Steppenwolf, and Broadway is the beneficiary.
This duo circles each other all night in Todd Rosenthal’s book-filled, slovenly and bursting at the seams set, slicing and jabbing about failure — unpublished books, unfulfilled lives and their son. The latter is a time bomb of a subject that will still make your heart hurt even if you know it’s coming.
Collateral damage are Nick and Honey, who get swept up in the booze-slickened gladiator fight and reveal too many of their own secrets, which naturally are thrown right back at their faces.
Nick, played with arrogance and predatory zeal by Madison Dirks, and poor, weak Honey, portrayed with great fragility by Carrie Coon, will never be the same as they stumble out of the house. They represent the next generation and they have just been schooled in the dark arts of psychological warfare.
‘‘It isn’t a pretty spectacle,’’ George admits. ‘‘Seeing a couple of middle-aged types hacking away at each other, all red in the face and winded, missing half the time.’’
‘‘Oh, you two don’t miss,’’ Nick replies, very correctly.
MacKinnon, who recently brilliantly directed ‘‘Clybourne Park’’ and has worked closely with Albee ever since she directed the premiere of his ‘‘The Play About the Baby’’ in 2001, proves again that she is a master at pacing and getting the best out of her actors who are wrestling with tough material. At Saturday’s opening night, Albee came up on stage to wild applause — and bowed to her.
This production plays the laughs excellently but also proves that love — twisted and damaged, perhaps — is at the heart of this play. The way George puts a blanket around his emotionally drained wife’s shoulders at the end of a night that included betrayal — both physical and emotional — is a lovely touch, one of many. A lamp may have been sacrificed on opening night, but this is a production that burns brightly nevertheless.
Fifty years after warring spouses George and Martha first waged battle, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” still packs a wallop that leaves you shaken.
Originally a showcase for Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen and in 2005 for Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner, the drama is back on Broadway in a production from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
The revival, which opened Saturday, doesn’t have household names on the marquee (except Albee’s). But who needs them? The production is powerful, revealing and as painful a fresh wound.
Widely known from the noisy 1966 film adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor, who won an Oscar, and Richard Burton, “Virginia Woolf” often gets reduced to a boozefest with free-flowing vitriol.
But the drama functions on so many deeper levels. Albee, with surgical precision, dissects the American psyche, academic life and the complexities of a marriage (actually, two of them) filled with betrayals, disappointments, illusions and love.
The action unfolds in a New England college town. George (Tracy Letts), who teaches history, and Martha (Amy Morton), daughter of the school’s president, play host to Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), a young new biology professor and his wife. Niceties quickly turn into nasty attacks — and don’t subside for three hours.
Director Pam MacKinnon, who staged the Tony-winning “Clybourne Park,” expertly mines the play’s savage humor and touching heartbreak.
Her vision puts George and Martha on a more equal footing. He’s as corrosive as she is. With the field leveled, the volume comes down and the clarity is amplified.
In his Broadway acting debut, Letts, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” rivets attention as George. Determined to level the score, his George vibrates with bottled-up frustrations that are bound to shatter.
Morton, unforgettable as a bitter daughter in “August: Osage County,” confirms that she’s a great naturalistic actress. Martha can veer into boozy camp, but Morton’s performance so real she makes you feel everything she’s going through.
Dirks and Coon, two Broadway first-timers, lend terrific support. He gives a layered performance that reveals the troubled personality behind Nick’s good looks. She brings a spirited silliness as the brandy-soused Honey but unmasks the character’s manipulative side.
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal wraps the play up in a detailed realistic living room of a big old college-town house. Fittingly, it’s bursting with books, liquor and lots of baggage.
Edward Albee’s classic dust-up “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” may now be eligible for AARP — this new Broadway revival opened Saturday, the play’s 50th anniversary — but it’s a model of wrinkle-free aging. The story, in which two married couples share a boozy, increasingly unhinged night, has lost none of its power to keep an audience on edge.
Indeed, while set in the early 1960s, this very good new production, which originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf a couple of years ago, could easily take place now.
Partly this has to do with the performances, whose balance of thoughtfulness and instinct give them a sense of relatable immediacy. Quite a feat, considering the central, older pair, a college history professor named George and his wife, Martha, can easily slide into almost campy, brawling drunks.
Under the direction of Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park”), they are played by Tracy Letts — an experienced actor but better known in New York as the author of “August: Osage County” and “Bug” — and Amy Morton, who scored a Tony nomination as the beleaguered elder daughter in “August.” They approach the characters as flesh-and-blood creatures, rather than archetypes of a sap and a gorgon.
The traditional take on George and Martha is that he endures her alcohol-soaked abuse more or less passively, then turns the tables on her — it takes a bit more than three hours and a pair of intermissions to get there.
But from the very beginning, Letts’ George is hiding in plain sight. He looks like a milquetoast despised by a domineering wife, who happens to be the daughter of the college’s president — she derisively calls him a “a big fat flop.”
But actually George is a master of passive aggression. When he seemingly backs away from a barb, his body language suggests he’s not cowed in the least. And when he tells Martha: “I warn you,” it’s a genuine threat.
Witness to this sparring are a handsome new biology professor, Nick (Madison Dirks), and his wife, Honey (Carrie Coon). They have dropped by for drinks, only to become trapped in a Möbius strip of mental and physical warfare — George involves them in perverse parlor games he dubs “Hump the Hostess” and “Bringing Up Baby.”
But while the show is extremely accomplished, this is yet another naturalistic production of a play that’s not.
So yes, Todd Rosenthal’s set gives us a realistic shabby-academic living room, strewn with books and reeking of crushed hopes.
And yes, the cast is uniformly excellent, mining deep veins of psychological accuracy.
But fabrication, delusion and manipulation are integral to the play. Like Beckett and his existentialist comic nightmares, Albee mines a pitch-black absurdism. Fifty years on, and he’s still one step ahead of Broadway.
“George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.”
Those keening words may never have cut so deep or hurt so bad as they do in the shattering revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that opened on Saturday night at the Booth Theater, precisely 50 years to the day after this landmark drama first exploded like a stealth bomb on Broadway, establishing Mr. Albee as the most important American playwright of his generation and setting a brave new standard for truth-telling — not to mention expletive-spewing — in the decorous world of the commercial theater.
But the soul ache this superlative staging leaves behind is accompanied by a feeling far more emotionally enriching: the exhilaration of a fresh encounter with a great work of theater revitalized anew. This Steppenwolf Theater production, the first necessary ticket of the fall Broadway season, establishes beyond question that at the half-century mark, an age when many plays, not to mention many people, are showing signs of flab, Mr. Albee’s scalding drama of marital discord still retains the bantam energy and strong bite of its youth.
The revelation here is the performance of Tracy Letts, making an electrifying Broadway debut as an actor five years after winning a Tony Award and subsequently a Pulitzer Prize as a playwright, for “August: Osage County.” Under the tightrope-taut direction of Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park,” Mr. Albee’s “Peter and Jerry”), Mr. Letts brings a coiled ferocity to George that all but reorders our responses to a play that many of us probably thought had by now vouchsafed all its surprises.
Stalking the stage like an animal ever on the verge of pouncing, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his cardigan — as if only vigilant restraint could keep him from pummeling everyone in his orbit — Mr. Letts’s George sets the production’s tone of incipient threat from the opening moments. Alternating simmering disquiet with bursts of spine-chilling viciousness, Mr. Letts’s shlumpy but somehow magnetic George keeps stoking the suspense, moment by moment, for three harrowing and yet highly entertaining hours.
Technically, it’s true, George has always been the master of ceremonies in the bruising games of Mr. Albee’s play, which depicts an endless night of boozy revels and bitchy acrimony taking place in the disorderly living room of a history professor and his wife, Martha, who have invited another, younger couple over to join in the blood sport. It is George who dispenses the copious amounts of liquor, George whose verbal wit most dazzles, George who brings the savage rites to a close.
But the loudmouthed, take-no-prisoners brutality of Martha usually dominates the proceedings, as she keeps the volume permanently cranked up in their battle of wits and wills. Here Martha is portrayed in an intriguing, effective lower key by Amy Morton (the Tony-nominated star of “August: Osage County”), who puts a subtle emphasis on the bruised woman inside the brawling monster. Ms. Morton has the husky, bourbon-flavored voice that many a Martha before her has used to incendiary effect — most recently the blistering Kathleen Turner in the 2005 Broadway revival — but she chooses to keep it modulated for long stretches of the evening, and the predatory leer in Martha’s icy eyes alternates with flickering hints of the terror and grief that will ultimately engulf her.
That the night will indeed end in wholesale destruction is a given for all who know the play. But never before have I felt such a prickly sense of dread as the three acts unfolded in all their symphonic discord. Mr. Letts and Ms. Morton make clear that beneath the couple’s mechanical antagonism lies a profound emotional dependence with gnarled roots embedded deeply in love. We sense from the beginning how high the stakes are, and as we watch George and Martha perform their devilish waltz ever closer to the precipice, the tension becomes almost unbearable.
Nick and Honey, hapless partners in George and Martha’s dark dance, are brought to vivid life by Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon. Ms. Coon depicts Honey’s vertiginous descent from tipsy to sodden to sickened with hilarious physical precision. Honey’s eyes seem to shrink into tiny slits from which she peeks out only intermittently, preferring the company of her own giddy thoughts sloshing around her head like the brandy in her glass. Against considerable odds, Mr. Dirks’s Nick retains his composure in the face of the predatory onslaughts of Martha and the castrating contempt of George, at least until the devastating scene in which George exposes the secrets that have already begun to poison their young marriage.
This is not, of course, the most brutal of George’s gambits. That he saves for Martha. But as Mr. Letts’s performance also makes clear, underneath George’s seeming mercilessness is a mournful sense of compassion. By turning their bitterness into a source of entertainment, George and Martha have distracted themselves from facing the truth of their disappointing lives. In bringing Nick and Honey’s shame into the light, George robs it of its power to sting. In the same spirit, and with a greater sense of sorrow, he knows he must destroy the comforting illusions he and Martha have created to anesthetize themselves against acknowledging how deeply they have been scarred.
It is an act of terrible spiritual violence, and like all violent acts it is shocking to witness — as is, I might add, the physical violence George inflicts on Martha, depicted with gut-churning realism here. But the final image of this exemplary production is, in its way, just as shocking. After the storms of cruelty, how wondrous and strange that a mere touch of the hand can startle us with its beauty and simplicity, its tenderness and truth.
You think you know "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" You know you've seen the play somewhere, and probably the movie. And since this latest Broadway revival has no Hollywood stars, you may not feel the urgent pull to get through another long, brutal night with George and Martha.
Well, forget all that. In fact, this is one of those forget-everything-you-know evenings, as immediate and surprising and unflinching as Edward Albee's marital stunner must have felt, in some different ways, in 1962.
From the opening moments, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's brilliantly cast and justly celebrated production, which opened Saturday on the masterwork's 50th anniversary, gives off a voltage of the new and the giddy-making confidence that comes from being in sublimely trustworthy hands.
Those opening moments are a shock, though not the way Albee's four-letter words are said to have shocked original audiences. What shakes us up is the way this Martha underplays her famous "What a dump!" as she and George tumble into their conspicuously lived-in home after a faculty party. Instead of a bellowing gorgon in a Bette Davis imitation (think Kathleen Turner's Martha in 2005), the daringly subtle and sensitive Amy Morton is instantly a person and not just the unhappy, self-dramatizing monster-daughter of the New England university president.
Amazingly, then comes this riveting George, usually first Beta to her Alpha Dog. But Tracy Letts -- whom Broadway only knows as the Pulitzer-winning playwright of "August: Osage County" -- goes against type for an astonishing, star-making portrayal of a dynamic, comfy-in-his skin George. It requires a conceptual leap to imagine him as a loser in the history department, but the leap is thrilling.
Thus, director Pam MacKinnon roils the balance, evening up the match between these long-married forces of bad nature and, in the process, allowing a naturalistic bond to toy, to and fro, with the cruel and the mythic.
This is not to suggest a toned-down Albee -- as if the master of hyper-articulate, grown-up emotional terrorism, 85, would ever permit it. This is still a harrowing odyssey of late-night evisceration, when the alluring new biology professor and his mouse of a wife stop by for a nightcap.
Madison Dirks skins layers of betrayal off the young hunk, while Carrie Coon devolves beautifully on brandy and a benumbed lack of irony. This is a visceral, devastating, deeply human night.
Though Tracy Letts began his career as an actor, he became a Broadway star for his work offstage, as the playwright who in 2008 collected both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, a darkly hilarious, deeply unsettling study of an embattled Oklahoma family.
So it's fitting that Letts should make his Main Stem acting debut in another celebrated account of distinctly American dysfunction, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In a new revival (* * * ½ out of four) that opened Saturday at the Booth Theatre — exactly 50 years after Virginia Woolf had its first Broadway bow — Letts delivers a performance as richly nuanced and ferociously entertaining as his August text.
He's cast as George, a middle-aged associate professor at a small New England college and the long-suffering husband of Martha, the acid-tongued and — as he reminds us repeatedly — slightly older daughter of the college president. Though Martha immediately establishes herself as the alpha figure in one of theater's most famously contentious marriages, the play derives its punch from the power struggle that develops, and the sense of interdependence that emerges, as George crawls out of his shell.
Letts relays this dark-horse quality as powerfully as any performer this critic has seen in the role. From his masterfully acerbic rebuttals to Martha's initial barrage of insults, this George proves that he isn't the mere simp his wife describes but rather a simmering cauldron of frustration and disappointment. And he lets the lid off with an unmannered intensity that is as bracing as it is convincing.
Of course, any production of Woolf relies on the strength of its four-member cast; and this one, transferred from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has no weak links. Both Letts and Amy Morton, who plays Martha, are longtime Steppenwolf ensemble members who have a shared history with the play: Morton directed her co-star in a 2004 staging at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.
Morton's savage but ultimately poignant Martha is, in keeping with Letts' stringent delivery, drier and less flamboyant than Kathleen Turner's in the last Broadway revival, or Elizabeth Taylor's in the film adaptation. As George and Martha fortify themselves and ply their houseguests, an ambitious young academic and his hapless wife, with endless rounds of booze, director Pam MacKinnon keeps the atmosphere tense but distinctly non-operatic, so that we feel less like audience members observing iconic characters than flies on the wall at an increasingly out-of-control party.
As the guests, Nick and Honey, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon are fine foils. Dirks' slick Nick, who quickly becomes the target of George's bitterness and Martha's lust, captures the hollowness and impotence (on several levels) that define his role. Coon's Honey is at once fetching and pitiable, and a marvelously fluid drunk.
You'll leave the gathering shaken and sobered, but also exhilarated. All golden anniversaries should be this memorable.
The entirely engrossing production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater begins a notch quieter than usual -- a depiction of near normal domesticity. And it ends quietly as well, in a moment filled with achingly honest vulnerability and tenderness. Taken together, that quietude lasts maybe 10 minutes. The remaining three hours is a relentlessly intense version of Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece about marital loathing and gamesmanship at a New England college. Despite its geographic setting, this is Albee Chicago-style.
The play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opened on Broadway Oct. 13 in a commercial transfer of the Steppenwolf Theater Company's Chicago production. The following is Steven Oxman's review of that earlier staging (Daily Variety, Dec. 14, 2010).
Actors Tracy Letts and Amy Morton have a history with George and Martha and with each other. She has directed him as George in the play before, and as longtime members of the Steppenwolf ensemble, they've played a married couple umpteen times. Most famously, Letts wrote the role of Barbara Westin, like Martha the daughter of a beloved academic father, for Morton in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "August: Osage County," arguably the best American drama about familial viciousness since… well, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
It may well take this type of history to achieve the fierceness onstage here. Each put-down, no matter how oblique, exposes a raw nerve.
The lanky Morton is actually an atypical Martha. As an actress, Morton exudes down-to-earth common sense far more than unfulfilled glamour or sexual aggression. But there is unquestionably something unguarded about this Martha, who, under Pam MacKinnon's direction, doesn't maintain unlimited relish for the evening's sport. In fact, she almost seems ready to call a truce at points, only to be urged by George into embracing "total war."
Letts' George is no hen-pecked husband. Used to humiliation, perhaps, he's now invulnerable, which invests him with most of the power. Usually, George possesses a shy reserve that explains why he failed as head of the history department. In Letts' take, George isn't diffident or insecure; he has such a superiority complex that he can barely talk to anyone without cruel condescension.
These are both exciting, rich performances, and while they capture a different dynamic, they get the game-playing nature of Albee's dialogue just right, confounding the houseguests. Carrie Coon makes an especially sensitive, sympathetic Honey, while as Nick, Madison Dirks has some competitive fight in him, as well as a smugness that makes it fun to watch him squirm.
Todd Rosenthal's set has so many sloppily placed books that they seem to be coming from the crevices. It's an interesting visualization of the interpretation here. This is George's house just as much, and perhaps even more, than it is Martha's.