Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Over the course of one long, gin- and Scotch-fueled night, middle aged couple George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) entertain, spar and break down with and in front of their guests, young couple Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon).
In this superlative production of Albee's classic play, director Pam McKinnon leads her actors to inspired, layered performances. Those unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf will hang on every word as they try to keep up with the verbal harpoons George and Martha lob at each other. And folks who've read and/or seen Virginia Woolf already will sit back and revel in the incredible way Letts, Morton, Dirks and Coon unearth treasures in Albee's text and characters.
There isn't much more to say about this top-notch production of one of the most well-known American plays, except that on the occasion of its 50th anniversary (this production, a transfer from Chicago's Steppenwolf, opened 50 years to the day of the original production), Virginia Woolf seems like it was written yesterday.
What, unfortunately, seems more American these days than watching people fight? That's what most reality TV shows, which are dishearteningly popular, are about, and all the attention hogs populating the illiterate programming could learn a thing or two from George and Martha.
Rather than simply fighting for attention, George and Martha fight to excite themselves. And they fight dirty. They've been married so long and know each other so well that they know exactly how to defeat their opponent in one fell swoop. And they do this, mind you, not with a series of right-hooks and body blows (or bitchy rants and hair-pulling, as the case may be on Bravo) but with razor sharp wit and intellectual and emotional games. It's brilliant because you ultimately understand that the fighting isn't about fighting; rather, it's about deflecting deep, underlying pain that is too much to bear.
Another note about Virginia Woolf: its three acts and two intermissions clock in at about three hours—which is a great thing! Just before I went into the Booth Theatre to experience the play, I was in another theatre buying tickets for another show. I was speaking with the box office associate, Mike, and we agreed that while the trend is to have a neat, intermission-less 90-minute play or musical, we like having a break in the action. Virginia Woolf is a great example of why.
Though there isn't much going on in terms of action, each of Albee's three acts is overflowing with some of the greatest, most insightful and incisive dialogue ever spoken on a stage (or a movie screen). I welcomed the opportunity to pause between bouts, reflect on what just happened and think about what's to come and how it all fits together. It helps you be a more thoughtful, engaged audience member because you have a chance to absorb the play bit by bit, rather than have it whiz by in a blur, leaving you possibly discombobulated and with only a vague understanding and recollection of what went on.
Moreover, while sometimes a story can be told in 90 minutes, sometimes it takes a little more time. Most likely, if someone was writing a great American drama today, they'd try to fit it into 90 or 100 minutes, lest the audience be challenged or get fidgety. (Interestingly, one of the more recent great American dramas was the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning August: Osage County, a three-act play written by Virginia Woolf actor Letts. Morton earned a Tony nomination for her performance.) Characters needs space to breathe. Ideas need time to gestate. And anyway, if you ordered the pay-per-view, don't you want a full 12 rounds?
Bonus: production stills
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is currently playing at the Booth Theatre. Visit virginiawoolfbroadway.com to learn more and to purchase tickets.
Cast photos are taken from the Who's Who page of the production's website.