Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Directed by Anthony Page. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Mark Bennett. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Cast: Kathleen Turner, Bill Irwin, with Mireille Enos, David Harbour.
Forget about all the lightweights, two of Broadway's heaviest hitters are finally back, and the blood is flowing freely. It doesn't matter that the weapons of choice here are words instead of fists - once these two challengers have started in on each other, nothing's going to stop them until at least one is broken beyond recognition.
The combatants are George and Martha, the eternally sparring married couple at the heart of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which has just re-opened at the Longacre in a mostly knock-out revival. But while the two deliver blow after stinging blow to each other, themselves, and the two unfortunate guests that get caught in the ring, the only clear victor in this grudge match is the play's author, Edward Albee.
Watching this revival, which stars Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner, it's easy to be reminded of why Albee rose to fame after the play's original production opened on Broadway in 1962. He has honed to a sharp point each word and sentence in the play so that every utterance - be it a short phrase, a long speech, or an argument between any combination of characters - takes on a life-or-death urgency. In the world Albee has created, acts of lust are inseparable from acts of revenge, playful banter has a violent undercurrent, and no catharsis is ever completely conclusive.
If time and the ubiquitous Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film version have dampened some of the play's original impact (most of the plot's turns and twists are by now common knowledge), director Anthony Page and his cast - which also includes David Harbour and Mireille Enos as the youthful but volatile "other" couple, Nick and Honey - don't let that stand in their way. They've approached the play with energy and determination worthy of a new work, but don't seek to redefine it as much as reaffirm its status as a piece worthy of notice (and production) in 2005.
Not that they have to do much. While Albee has partially revised the script (for reasons including, one assumes, trimming down the running time), much of it remains trenchant. Alcoholism, the predilection of great powers to war with each other, and even genetic manipulation - aging history professor George accuses borderline-Aryan biology professor Nick of wanting to engineer a race of supermen - all seem both rooted in the play's 1960 New England setting and bursting with contemporaneity.
But the play's central focus has always been and remains George and Martha. They've been married for over 20 years and are now barely seem able to tolerate each other, except by getting drunk, playing games, speaking in their own vernacular of references and insults, and constructing increasingly elaborate worlds of fantasy to dull whatever pain the other methods can't obscure. These tactics work while they're alone, but rip to shreds everything they touch when witnessed by Nick and Honey, who arrive at George and Martha's house (John Lee Beatty designed the perfect claustrophobic, bourbon-colored set) for a post-faculty party visit.
Until the morning arrives, possibly bringing with its grey sunshine (the haunting work of lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski) optimism and hope for better days ahead, the four must scream and claw at each other to maintain their truths and illusions while everything their lives are built on slowly breaks down. By the end of their time together, one marriage is doomed, another is in jeopardy, and someone has died - assuming, of course, he existed to begin with.
It's rich material, especially for George and Martha. (She gets some of the best quips, from the low - "You make me puke" - to the high - "I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you.") For the most part, Irwin and Turner don't disappoint; they nicely establish, and then quietly strain against, the strange emotional bonds connecting the two. Though much of their best work is done together, most notably in the play's anguished final minutes, each also turns in a fine individual performance, with Irwin's transformation from mouse to man and Turner's gradual emotional breakdown both superb examples of detailed, strictly apportioned acting.
Harbour does delectable work in his drunk scenes, and is particularly good when his golden boy character falls from grace; he's not quite up to the subtler and more sober challenges of the earlier scenes. Enos likewise thrives in the darker, more serious moments that force her out of the more caricature-like portrayal she adopts early on. Nevertheless, they both remain quite effective, even in their more uneven moments.
Irwin and Turner also aren't immune to this, and never fully shed their previously established personas and mannerisms: Irwin's broad, calculated grimaces are more appropriate for his clowning work than for the beaten, submissive George, and Turner's whiskey-soaked baritone too often remains too monotonic to capture the nuances of the colorful, musical language that Martha exploits almost continuously. Page's direction, otherwise well-judged in bringing the play from its deceptively conventional beginning to its shattering conclusion, doesn't give them the support they need to break out of their too-familiar shells.
But Albee's work is strong enough to withstand imperfections as minor as these, and the resulting production is still as thrilling, funny, and ultimately devastating as it needs to be. One has the right to expect little better of either a modern or a timeless classic play - the last 42 years have proven Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the former; one suspects history will judge it the latter soon enough.