Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Best Bad Party You'll Ever See

Review:  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

George has found his bite, and it's truly scary.
Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Madison Dirks, and Amy Morton in Steppenwolf's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
You just can’t keep a good play down.  Edward Albee’s classic drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last played Broadway a scant seven years ago, but any audience member thinking it’s too soon to revive this American masterpiece will have all doubts wiped away within the first few minutes of the sensational new production currently playing the Booth Theatre.  Imported from Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company with its original cast intact, this devastating new interpretation of the 50-year-old work feels as immediate and fresh as if it were written yesterday.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? depicts the incredibly dysfunctional relationship of a college history professor named George (Tracy Letts) and his supremely dissatisfied wife, Martha (Amy Morton).  Booze-addled and vicious, the pair has turned their frequent verbal assaults into a highly structured game of wits that’s been perfected through years of practice.  They’ve tricked the unsuspecting Nick and Honey (Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon, respectively) into unwittingly participating in this blood sport by inviting the younger couple over for a nightcap following a faculty party, and after a series of escalating arguments the sun rises on four completely shattered human beings.

Albee is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and acknowledged master of the theatre, and Virginia Woolf is the work that first catapulted him to national attention.  The passage of time has done nothing to dull its incendiary bite and pulse-pounding immediacy, and the depth of these supposedly civilized characters’ cruelty remains shocking 50 years later.  The dialogue, especially that of the fiercely intelligent George and Martha, dazzles with its inventiveness and complexity, offering a feast for the ears while providing a wealth of information about the characters speaking it.  How the characters talk is just as revealing as what they say, and repeated visits will unearth new turns of phrase and clever wordplay to appreciate.

Albee has such fun with the language that his play manages to be oppressively dark and blisteringly funny, a duality wisely highlighted by director Pam MacKinnon and her phenomenal cast.  MacKinnon’s razor sharp direction perfectly balances comedy and drama, giving the play a kinetic energy that alternates between uproarious laughter and squirm-inducing discomfort.  The play’s three-plus hours fly by, leaving you thoroughly exhausted and yet hungry for more.

The cast may lack any recognizable Hollywood names, but the level of talent displayed by this incredible ensemble of Steppenwolf actors more than compensates for the lack of star wattage.  This is the finest group of performers to set foot on Broadway in years, working in such perfect tandem that the production never feels anything less than completely authentic.  The attention to detail and emotional honesty is truly stunning, and although I don’t typical prognosticate in reviews, I expect this company to do exceedingly well come Tony season.

The greatest revelation among the cast is Tracy Letts, who won virtually every award imaginable as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County.  His acting talents are every bit as astounding as his playwriting abilities, and his George emerges as the standout in a play usually dominated by Martha’s grandstanding theatrics.  Letts initially appears to be the unambitious “nothing” Martha constantly accuses him of being, but as the night progresses he shows a bite and extreme callousness that far surpasses anything his wife is capable of.  His malice is palpable, and when George loses his cool you’ll find yourself shrinking away in abject horror.  But just as George reaches his most monstrous, Letts will do something so utterly charming that you cannot help but be drawn to him, and by play’s end he’s demonstrated that all of his actions are motivated by a twisted but wholly sincere love for his wife.

Of course, George cannot exist without Martha, and Amy Morton does thoroughly impressive work in the role.  From her first entrance she displays a perfectly modulated level of intoxication, using every nuance of her movement and mannerisms to create the most convincing depiction of a high functioning alcohol I’ve ever seen.  Morton fully embraces all of Martha’s less admirable qualities, including her particularly egregious actions in Act II, but tempers her anger enough that you never once doubt her deep, uninhibited love of George.  Morton creates a devastating portrait of a tragically lonely, wounded human being, one who ultimately knows she’s brought this all upon herself and is deeply remorseful about it.  The interplay between Morton and Letts is the centerpiece of the evening, and they portray George and Martha’s relationship in all of its off-putting complexity.

As the most unfortunate houseguests ever, Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks more than hold their own against the powerhouse performances going on around them.  Carrie Coon’s Honey may not have much to say, but she communicates volumes through her body language and physicality.  Honey’s the most obviously intoxicated of the bunch, and Coon creates a convincing alcohol-induced haze around herself while still giving the audience access to the myriad of thoughts swirling around in her head.  Coon also provides the evening’s most hilarious moments of physical comedy, gamely throwing herself at whatever piece of furniture (or person) happens to be closest.

Madison Dirks has the trickiest role in the show, as Nick acts as much as an audience surrogate as he does a participant in the story.  Instantly distrustful of George and Martha’s antics, Nick initially seems like a nice guy caught in a bad situation, but eventually reveals himself to be every bit as depraved and morally reprehensible as his hosts.  Dirks slowly unravels the layers of pretension and arrogance surrounding Nick, leaving us with a wholly honest portrait of a young man already beginning to feel the bitter sting of regret.

The production design perfectly complements and enhances the work of the actors.  Todd Rosenthal’s set looks exactly like you’d expect the house of two alcoholic academics to look, with each nook and cranny filled with enough perfectly ordered chaos that it could hold our attention all by itself.  Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting subtly conveys the passage of time as the evening wears on and dawn approaches, and the costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins inform all of the characters without overwhelming any of them.

In short, this top-tier Virginia Woolf is a must see for any serious theatre fan.  The Steppenwolf Theatre Company is home to some of the greatest actors working today, and we are lucky that these four have chosen to grace the New York stage with their abundance of talent.  Tracy Letts and Amy Morton earn their place among the all-time great George and Marthas, while Pam MacKinnon’s expert direction keeps the entire production moving forward with a crackling energy that is thrilling to behold.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the epitome of Broadway theatre, and simply cannot be missed.

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