Of Drinks and Drama: Musings on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – October 4, 2012

It’s pretty much a universal truth that the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol in the wee hours of the morning will bring out the worst in people, resulting in embarrassing behavior, divulged secrets and a whole lot of hurt, be it physical, mental and/or emotional. Perhaps there is no better theatrical display of the damaging results of late night over imbibing than in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, currently playing at the Booth Theatre and celebrating its 50th anniversary with the current revival opening on the same date as the original production had (October 13th). I had obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle booth at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction and I had heard much praise for this production, which originated at the famed Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

The play revolves around George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple – he a history professor at a fictional New England college, and she the daughter of the president of said college – who invite a new (young) biology professor and his wife to their home. Already inebriated from the party from which they all attended,  more and more drinks are served along with scathing remarks and vicious retorts between George and Martha; the younger couple, who are never directly addressed by name, are appalled at their hosts’ behavior but are soon baited as well and find themselves entangled in the crossfire. Hurtful accusations and indiscreet revelations are exposed and in the end, the line between reality and illusion is shattered, leaving both couples with deep emotional scars that may never heal.

This was my first time ever seeing this play, and while I knew the general plot of the play, I was astounded by the verbal tennis match between George and Martha, and the appropriate use of vulgarities and sexual innuendo, which must have been shocking fifty years ago, but now seems to be the norm. The four actors, all of whom were in the Steppenwolf production (three of whom were making their Broadway debut), were also astounding – Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, as the combative George and Martha, and Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon as the unsuspecting younger couple. Tracy Letts, a playwright himself, was electrifying to watch as he matched insults and accusations with Amy Morton with great aplomb, you’d imagine that they actually were an embittered married couple (I’ve since read in several articles that both Letts and Morton have worked together numerous times before, which explains their rapport); to see Letts’ almost passive rage build and escalate throughout the course of the play to the point where his entire head turns scarlet red as he spews his combative diatribe to anyone within listening range is a master class in acting. Amy Morton is a perfect verbal sparring partner and is equally vicious in her baiting  tirades and at the same time alluring as the cuckolding wife. Mason Dirks and Carrie Coon also hold their own, involuntarily absorbing the toxic atmosphere in which they find themselves and attempts in vain to not be affected by it, but with the layers of dysfunction they witness in their hosts, coupled with their own flaws, it would not be hard for them to believe, if only for a moment, that they could become like George and Martha.

It was one of the rare occasions that I did not wait at the stage door, as I was quite overwhelmed by what I had just seen that I momentarily had lost the ability to form coherent sentences.  Clocking in at over three hours (with two intermissions), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a massive undertaking to endure, but it is well worth it to see a quartet of actors at their peak delivering a master class in dramatic acting.

Update 6/10/2013: Heartfelt and deserved congratulations to Tracy Letts and Pam MacKinnon who were respectively named Best Actor in a Play and Best Director in a Play, and the production itself, named Best Revival of a Play at last night’s Tony Awards. Kudos to Mr. Letts and Ms. MacKinnon for their wonderful acceptance speeches.