For a Broadway-bound revival of the first major work by one of the country's most esteemed playwrights, this production of Edward Albee's ground-breaking "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" seems too timid. The language is as forceful as ever and the performances by Kathleen Turner as Martha and Bill Irwin as George confirm the stature of each, but the play itself seems somehow diminished. What famously didn't get the Pulitizer in 1962--nobody did--is old hat, brilliantly conceived and effectively presented, but not fresh enough. It's as if we've seen this pair named for the father of his country and his spouse playing their mindgames too long.. The shock, mined in too many plays by other people, is gone. The confluence of Realism with the Absurd is a given. Albee has gone further himself recently, as in "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" or the Kafkaesque "The Play About the Baby". Still, at least for first act, and some way into the second, the content of show seems surprising relevant. Albee may have gone further, but the American theatre hasn't.
At first Turner seems an excellent choice as a domineering harridan, hanging onto her looks and small-time prestige, possibly able to match the enduring image of Taylor in the screen version. But by the end, the internal dynamics of the role escape her as they did her Hollywood predecessor, and the climatic "Bringing Up Baby" game is just another inning in the battle of the sexes. Irwin on the other hand, uses his certified genius and meticulous style to create a George clearly different from Burton's brawling boozer with a core of frozen jello. His professor drinks less than the rest of the quartet, though he's clearly had a few, and plans further ahead. Perhaps that's what the author had in mind when he cast these two performers with different Broadway experience against each other. Both the original and the Broadway revival a decade later were dependant on Method acting to support the intricate surface of the script. In this production, contrast in style serves that purpose.
British director Anthony Page, who's had several successes with Albee plays in London has the task of blending four distinct approaches to acting, each well-suited to the characters, but not fully to the play. Turner is excellent emboding Martha's brashness and humor, but seems to require a closeup for emotion. In a 300 seat 3/4 theater she might be devastating. Irwin's professorish attention to detail carries further, supported by physical exactness, but would be equally effective up close. As Nick, a shallow and ambitious young professor from the Mid-West, David Harbour, seen on Broadway in "The Invention of Love" and on TV police dramas has a direct contemporary style which suggests very little thought about life, even though his character's a biologist. Mirelle Enos, also seen in :The Invention of Love", has done a variety of classical roles in recent seasons. She plays Nick's mousey wife Honey with a touch of incipient madness. Enos makes much more of her underwritten role than Harbour does of his. These contrasting styles work best in the various two scenes which Albee uses to advance this long journey through the night. The ensemble which functions in the first act on a social level becomes murky by the climax of the play. At the end, it's Irwin's solo performance which returns to memory, as we glimpse the young man behind the old professor, the disappointed talespinner hidden by the grey historian, a man with a vicious love of his wife.
What anchors th piece most completely in the past is John Lee Beatty's execution of what legendary designer Robert Edmund Jones famously called ADBLV--another damn Broadway living room--full of detail.There's a couch squarely in the middle, single seating to the side with amenities needed for the action just above the center line. The doors to the garden are up left center just below the stairs to the bedroom, the front door faces them with a large window below it for the final lighting cue. The doorchimes hang where Martha can conveniently stumble into them. The audience knows how the space works, especially since all it's tropes have been done to death in television drama. A more contemporary and abstract interpretation of the space might break the play from its period mold. The show is of course conventionally well-lit by Peter Kaczorowski, who most recently did "The Rivals" with Beatty at Lincoln Center. Jane Greenwood's costumes suit the period and the actors, and certainly allow Martha to appear to wear the pants in the family plus convincing us that Honey has no hips. Otherwise they're generic, as the playwright probably ordered.
One has to wonder what Albee's intent is in spearheading the revival of this piece at this time. He's been stressing the piece's humor, which he seems to feel has never been really appreciated, even by himself. Writers of the Absurd always walk a thin line between comedy and terror, and perhaps having survived as long as he has, the latter has subsided. A production of this caliber in this mode would satisfy most regional audiences for a limited run, but how it will fair on the Great White Way remains to be seen. Unless the director and the author can modulate the final scenes so as to get beyond the laughter of recognition which supports the beginning of the play, and a sense of boredom in the middle, this outing may be written off as merely adequate to the task at hand.
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