By Edward Albee
Directed by Anthony Page
Starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin
Longacre Theatre /220 West 48th Street / 432-7200

Reviewed by David Spencer

I remember being in college and seeing the last (and the first) Broadway revival of the 1963 play "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (that one, in 1975, directed by the author, Edward Albee, himself), and really wanting to love it. But right from the opening entrance of that bickering couple—George, the beleaguered history professor and Martha, his viper tongued wife—and they were Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst, no slouches—it felt as if the edges had been rounded, professional but facile. You knew the bite was in the play, in the words, in the situation (I had seen the Mike Nichols-directed movie with Burton and Taylor, and I knew the 4 LP original cast box set on Columbia Records with Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen under Alan Schneider’s direction, so the potential was not a mythical thing) but I walked away feeling that nailing it was not as simple as staging it respectably…even for the author.

By contrast, as I watched the entrance of the stars of the new revival at the Longacre, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner, I felt a quiet, but palpable frisson, and an inner voice whispering: "That’s right…that’s right."

It is, in fact, much more than right, it is phenomenally on target.

In every aspect—posture, diction, the pitch and roar of her voice, the lethality of her territory-staking swagger—Kathleen Turner IS Martha.

As for the George of Bill Irwin, something new has been added. The "traditional" George is deceptively beaten and weary (to start) before Martha pushes one button too many and he finds his claws too…but Irwin, who also brings to the table the stuff that fuels his more famous persona as the deceptively understated master clown, brings a mousiness and even a soupçon of puritanical reserve, such that you think (in a good way, as part of the suspense of the evening) What could have possibly brought these two together? What hidden quality is going to emerge that makes this connection so compellingly, sickly symbiotic? And when Irwin finally emerges from his shell, it’s with the carnivorous instincts of a fledgling vulture.

As unwitting victims Nick and Honey, David Harbour (the perfect balance of jock and academic) and Mirielle Enos (embodying the nightmare existence of a limited intellect surrounded by verbal athletes) are likewise memorably, uniquely, recreating classic roles—never to the point of distortion, only to the result of revelation.

Anthony Page’s nearly invisible direction—in the best sense of never intruding—is likewise, of course, right on target.

I have not been a proponent of late Albee works (i.e. "The Goat" and "The Play About the Baby") because they seem to me in pursuit of a rather hateful socio-sexual agenda that I won’t articulate here. But "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is Albee at the top of his game, a roaringly entertaining look at nuclear explosion of a marriage that comes at you with an odd but unmistakably humanist compassion often lacking in Albee’s later work. And in this production, his best is at its best. The kind of evening that becomes legend.

You might want to see it while it’s still a reality…

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