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Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
by Edward Albee
Starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin
On Broadway at the Longacre Theatre

Kathleen Turner's voice has gotten a lot of attention over the years. Too manly, or where's that accent from, say the detractors. Yet it's also been the epitome of breathy sexuality--the voice of cartoon femme fatale "Jessica Rabbit." Either way, it's made her a good living, on film. In the theatre the voice is the primary vehicle for the actor's soul and presence, especially in a play as exhaustively verbal as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Albee gives his leading characters, George and Martha, not speeches but arias packed with double- and triple-entendres, literary references, and philosophical heft. Such a play demands from an actor a supreme instrument, in range and sensitivity, both to communicate its complexity and to keep the audience awake.

So while Turner casts a great visceral physical presence on the stage as Martha, that deep monotone of hers cannot match the expressiveness of the writing over three acts. She's brassy alright. Seductive, yes. But I didn't feel that volatility so essential to the character. We--like her trapped guests--should be somewhat scared of Martha, of what she may do at any moment. Turner, with her expert wisecracking and world weariness, makes for somehow oddly comforting company. Maybe it comes with being a movie star. (There is, of course, the requisite applause for her entrance at the top. Not really the ideal way to begin this play.)

The surprise of the evening, then, is how big brassy Martha is eclipsed by her mousy husband, thanks to Bill Irwin. The play has now become the Triumph Of George, the little guy over the "big bad wolf." Unlike the severe and imposing acerbity of such butch George's as Richard Burton in the movie, Irwin cuts a slighter figure--a close relation to other Albee impotent bookworms like The Zoo Story's Peter, but with the poking wit of that play's Jerry, as well. Irwin impresses not by "proving himself an actor" and "disappearing into the role"--but by bringing so much Bill Irwin into it! Only he could make George so winning a clown, a twisted jester at Martha's dying court. Employing the well-honed tricks of his vaudevillian art--mimicking his opponents' voices, punctuating his Albee-esque puns with elbow juts and quick takes--he locates the sick circus in the play and becomes its master of ceremonies.

But with such a likeable George and Martha something goes wrong. (Aside from the fact there's basically no romantic chemistry between the two.) The play feels too easy under Anthony Page's direction. In 1962, the brutal (and dirty) jokes shocked; now they titillate an audience numbed by Married With Children. Which isn't to say the play is dated, just the bar is now raised for any production of this play to have its intended disturbing impact. I personally feel--no matter how "universal" we all know The Great Plays are-- it works best as a period piece, piercing through the veneer of 50s America. Page and his team have set it instead in such a generic American-Family-Play-Land there is no social context. (John Lee Beatty is one of the great designers, but his reputation for providing cozy sets you "want to live in" is not an asset here.) I would even argue the play also cries out for a more abstract, experimental staging to restore its full pity and terror. But this is Broadway after all, and a thoroughly Broadway-friendly production it is. A producer's dream. Albee has even cut a crucial scene at the end of Act II to make sure everyone makes their 10pm train. (When curtain is at 7:00, that is.)

I haven't mentioned the cast's other half, and won't drag on. Mirielle Enos does bring something new and less annoying to Honey than others and is fascinating to watch in her eccentric spasms. She gets Albee's twisted spirit. But hunky David Harbour I just found boring. Nick's two long dialogues with George, I realize now, form the fulcrum (fulcra?) of the play's "argument" against success-driven Americanism. Just because Nick is a dolt shouldn't mean that the actor can't still match George's complexity and intensity. Page doesn't find anything to activate Nick in these scenes and--despite Irwin's impressive rhetorical skills here--the play just sits there on the couch along with the static blocking.

I was indeed haunted when I left--but not by inklings of my own complacency, or by lingering questions of imaginary pregnancies. It was the thought that Albee's masterwork might only live on as slightly naughty domestic comedy. To paraphrase a recent movie-sage, "So this is how the American Theatre dies--with thunderous applause..."

But hey, that's just my opinion. Check out these other reviews...
Ben Brantley, New York Times
Michael Feingold, Village Voice


Anonymous said...

You saw Star Wars 3??!

Playgoer said...

Ah. So, apparently, have you, Anonymous...

Yeah, I unfortunately can't get that stupid line out of my head, probably because everyone likes to quote it now. I have a hunch it might be the only line left from the apocryphal Tom Stoppard draft. (I kid not. See A.O. Scott's Ny Times review...)