It's been nearly 30 years since the last Broadway revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", but the current cast, led by Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, makes the wait seem absolutely worthwhile.
From their very first exchange, Turner, who plays Martha, the blowsy, angry daughter of a university president, and Irwin, who plays her hapless husband, George, make the couple's sadomasochistic relationship painfully vivid.
This is one role where Turner's low, gruff voice makes perfect sense. It is the growl of a raging alcoholic. Irwin, who rose to fame as a mime, has in fact a mellow, liquid voice.
Together they convey all the savage eloquence of Albee's dialogue. Every line is riveting. Some are witty and caustic.
Some are pure poetry, like Martha's quiet third-act tribute to the husband she so mistreats, which Turner delivers with wistful elegance.
There was a time when we assumed the language of the theater must be elevated, richer than everyday banality. "Virginia Woolf" reminds us of that "norm" we no longer expect.
The language is so arresting that it is easy to overlook the artificiality of the plot. Albee himself has acknowledged his debt to Noel Coward's "Hay Fever," in which hosts play mind games on their guests. This is a more vicious version of that play.
In 1962, the handling of George and Martha's son was pure shock. Now we can take such devices in stride, and it's harder to believe them.
In some ways the most persuasive production was the one in 1976 directed by the author, starring Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara. It had the aura of a classical play, with the emotions kept under control.
Here, Irwin achieves that pressure-cooker effect, his eyes constantly making us aware of all the emotion he is holding in.
Even in the final act, when he finally turns on Martha, it is not an uncontrolled outburst. It is a carefully calculated move, as befits a man accustomed to the wormy politics of academia.
Irwin shows himself an actor of great intelligence and depth. As for Turner, it is the best stage work she has done.
David Harbour has a brooding quality that makes Nick compelling and sympathetic. Mireille Enos conveys the ditziness of Honey, especially in a hilarious "modern" dance, but also suggests her underlying sadness.
The production, directed by Anthony Page, mines the riches of the play beautifully. John Lee Beatty's set has a witty academic seediness. Jane Greenwood's costumes convey the poignant nuances both of '50s social conventions and Martha's attempts to get beyond them.
"Virginia Woolf" may not have the emotional impact it once did, but it is a thrilling evening of theater.
Two dying scorpions trapped at the bottom of an empty gin bottle. That suggests something of the impact of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," which opened last night in a scorching, exhilarating revival at the Longacre Theatre.
The battling sparring partners are an earth-motherly, blowsy Kathleen Turner and a nerdy, but vicious-tongued Bill Irwin. As Albee's Martha and George, they play marital parlor games to the psychic death - a strange hobby but their own.
These roles have become classics of the American stage over the 43 years since they were first entrusted to Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill.
Now Turner, with her dangerous sphinx-like scowl, is pitted against a sly, resourceful Irwin, who seems like a bullfighter warily facing a bulldozer.
This is a play that seems, with a slightly revised text, to have deepened over the years.
Set in a discreetly shabby house on the campus of the small New England college where George is an associate professor of history and Martha, the daughter of the college president, the play is a long night's journey into dawn.
After a boozy faculty party, Martha, unbeknownst to her husband, has invited back for drinks Nick (David Harbour), a young, ambitious, semi-hunky new hire in the biology department, and his even younger, mousy wife, Honey (Mireille Enos).
What happens between them is too tragic to be comic and too ironic to be tragic. Even the hopefully cathartic ending has the wry flipness of a "to be continued" about it.
In this, Albee's 1962 play - and his first major hit, if not his best work - a fantasy of frustrated parenthood has been torn down. So much of "Virginia Woolf" spirals on just that concept of ongoing family, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers.
But you know that in their hearts George and Martha - those half-domesticated scorpions - will build again and fight again.
It's their nature, and the nature of this great play that we are led beyond the parameters of the dramatic present to examine the past and future of all four of its vividly alive characters.
Granted, "Virginia Woolf" is the writing of a young playwright, and his genius is here centered as much on the sizzle as the flavor. But what a toxic, alcohol-fueled sizzle!
When it was first staged by Alan Schneider it was contemporary. Now, on its third Broadway outing, suavely directed here by Anthony Page, it is a period piece, cleverly but subtly acknowledged in John Lee Beatty's time-sensitive setting and the Jane Greenwood style-conscious costumes.
Turner, growling and belligerent, is finely matched by the perky, pesky George of Irwin, who's fiercely waspish in both senses of the word.
Harbour makes a brash, callow but calculating Nick, and Enos, her face often crinkled with a look of uncomprehending idiocy, is a timid, oddly resilient Honey. Both are superb.
As Honey says, midway through the night: "Violence! Violence!" Violence indeed, with a soaring, scarring intensity rare in the theater.
Which one are you betting on? The body or the brain? The big-breasted brawler or the spineless professor? Some advice to fans of histrionic blood sports: Don't call this game prematurely. With Kathleen Turner in one corner and Bill Irwin in the other, the balance of power is never fixed in the pulse-racing revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," which opened last night at the Longacre Theater.
Everybody ultimately loses in Edward Albee's great marital wrestling match of a play from 1962. But theatergoers who attend this revealingly acted new production, directed by Anthony Page, are destined to leave the Longacre feeling like winners, shaken but stirred by the satisfaction that comes from witnessing one helluva fight.
Tempering the play's notorious vitriol with eye-opening compassion, this interpretation restores characters who have acquired the faces of Freudian monsters to purely human form. In following Mr. Albee's account of a couple's long-night's journey into dawn, set at their home on an insular New England campus, Mr. Page and company have affectingly scaled a masterpiece back from operatic excess to the tautness of a chamber work.
They have done so without sacrificing the emotional intensity or the abundant, alarming humor that finds the gut-wrenching factor in belly laughs. And as the man-eating Martha, Ms. Turner, a movie star whose previous theater work has been variable, finally secures her berth as a first-rate, depth-probing stage actress.
In a Broadway season crowded with disappointments, "Virginia Woolf" is a very welcome surprise. I confess, my hopes were slim for this incarnation. Casting Ms. Turner, whose brief nude scene turned the lifeless stage version of "The Graduate" into a cash cow, seemed like a cynically commercial choice. Sure, everyone knows that this former film-noir siren can do brassy and blowsy with her eyes closed, but her recent performances had leaned perilously toward camp.
And though Mr. Irwin, best known as a brilliant commedia-dell'arte-style clown, had proved himself a skilled Albee interpreter in the second Broadway cast of "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?," his is a naturally meek, apologetic presence. When it was announced that he would play George, the alcoholic history professor and Martha's devious sparring partner, predictions were that the full-bodied Ms. Turner would make short work of the splinterlike Mr. Irwin and then munch on the scenery for dessert.
Let me extend full and humble apologies to both stars, who stake finely individualized claims to parts immortalized by Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill (in the original Broadway production) and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (in the 1966 movie). True, there probably has never been a "Virginia Woolf" in which the leading roles initially register as such elemental contrasts. You at first share the head-scratching wonder experienced by George and Martha's late-night visitors: Nick (the excellent David Harbour), a strapping young biology professor, and Honey (the funny if overshrill Mireille Enos), his squeaking mouse of a wife.
Ms. Turner's Martha is a stunningly spontaneous creature, a wayward life force, while Mr. Irwin's George is a contained, angular study in self-consciousness. It's clear that she acts from instinct, while he never stops strategizing. But as they entertain (read: vivisect) themselves and their young guests, you sense their utter interdependence.
Watch how their eyes keep brushing over each other, sometimes with brutal briskness, but sometimes warmly as well. They are always assessing with those gazes, both to anticipate possible attacks and to confirm a bond that is the only real security either knows. They are as deeply comfortable in their mutual discomfort as they are with their book-lined living room (designed with just the right hint of slovenliness by John Lee Beatty).
You also intuit a sense of shared values between George and Martha. The self-serving ambition of Mr. Harbour's superbly blunt Nick, whose attraction to Martha has much to do with her being the daughter of the college's president, is shone in particularly stark light. And as much as George and Martha manipulate this callous lad to get back at each other, you can feel them recoiling from his moral numbness.
What George and Martha also share, to the bewilderment of outsiders, is a language and mythology of their own invention, an idiom both savage and poetical. The dialogue here is like a Dick and Jane reader compared with the metaphysics of later Albee. Even so, "Virginia Woolf" is full of semantic pranks and games, of carefully cadenced lyricism. The temptation is to ride the poetry as if it were a winged horse. (Think of Richard Burton's Dylan Thomasesque line readings.) Mr. Page and his stars insist on grounding each linguistic reversal and rodomontade in in-the-moment reactions.
Mr. Irwin boldly conceives George less as an emasculated bull à la Burton than as a man of defensive asexuality and carefully modulated whimsy. He lives beneath a shield of artfully contrived mannerisms. But you are always aware of the toll exacted by this posture, and every so often a crippled smile breaks through, chilling in its pain and hostility.
Ms. Turner's Martha counters George's cerebral distance with responses that come straight from the viscera. "I don't have a sense of humor," Martha declares. "I have a fine sense of the ridiculous, but no sense of humor." And Ms. Turner conveys the full weight of that assessment. Her Martha is imperious, spoiled, literal-minded, disappointed, triumphant, nasty and rather kind, all in the same breath.
These disparate traits vie for dominance and surface separately and slowly. Their rhythms are dictated by alcohol, and this Martha moves with a wary feline swagger that bespeaks a long habit of adapting to drunkenness. And her emotional synchronization with George is such that you realize that while "Virginia Woolf" may be the most vicious portrait of a marriage this side of Strindberg, it is also - deeply and truly - a love story.
Part of the gorgeousness, by the way, of Ms. Turner's performance is its lack of vanity. At 50, this actress can look ravishing and ravaged, by turns. In the second act, she is as predatorily sexy as she was in the movie "Body Heat." But in the third and last act she looks old, bereft, stripped of all erotic flourish.
When she sits at the center of the stage quietly reciting a litany of the reasons she loves her dearly despised husband, you feel she has peeled back each layer of her skin to reveal what George describes as the marrow of a person. I was fortunate enough to have seen Uta Hagen, who created Martha, reprise the role in a staged reading in 1999, and I didn't think I would ever be able to see "Virginia Woolf" again without thinking of Ms. Hagen.
But watching Ms. Turner in that last act, fully clothed but more naked than she ever was in "The Graduate," I didn't see the specter of Ms. Hagen. All I saw was Ms. Turner. No, let's be fair. All I saw was Martha.
For nearly as long as George has endured Martha and Martha has put up with George, theater lovers have been imagining their dream casts for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Rumors of this star in Los Angeles, that one in London, have provoked many an adrenaline rush about Broadway's first revival of Edward Albee's 1962 marital masterwork in what is now-shockingly – almost 30 years.
As a party game, such diversions may lack the brutal oomph of "get the guests" or "hump the hostess," two of the pastimes that motivate the late-night cruelties at George and Martha's house when the hunky new biology professor and his mouse of a wife stop by for a nightcap. Chances are, however, that opposing reactions to the unpredictable casting at the Longacre Theatre will leave a little blood on the walls.
Put us firmly among the satisfied with this "Virginia Woolf," which opened last night with Kathleen Turner as a trucker of a Martha and Bill Irwin's finely wrought George as the bug that refuses to stay squished on her windshield. Anthony Page, the playwright's specialist in London, has directed a solid, straightforward, intelligent production of this articulate three-hour monster of a drama. If the evening doesn't have the visceral magnitude of the 1999 staged reading by the original-and ageless - Uta Hagen as Martha, with Jonathan Pryce, Mia Farrow and Matthew Broderick, well, Hagen is dead now and that night is for the memory books.
This remains a thrilling dissection of the complexities of coupling, set small in 1960 in a middling New England college, but as vast and as vulgar as the curdling Cold-War American dream.
It isn't hard to imagine the shock of the original, picked for the Pulitzer Prize but infamously rejected by the board. In this slightly revised 2004 version, the tough talk has been further toughened up to update the language of so-called obscenity. But it's the viciousness of the emotions, not the four-letter words, that makes the vulgarity so naked.
For an audience imprinted by the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Mike Nichols' 1966 film, the dowdy inelegance of Turner and Irwin should be the real shocker.
Their campus home, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a dull microcosm of people whose most important piece of furniture is the liquor cast. When Martha clumps through the doorway and declares "What a dump!" in her amateur Bette Davis voice, w immediately grasp some of the disappointments in the life of the university president's daughter.
Turner has abandoned every hint of her weird-accent mannerisms here.
She doesn't have to strip, as she did in the awful stage version of "The Graduate" and isn't doing that I'm-too-sexy-for-my-skin squirm that she was still clinging to in her "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
This is a performance without vanity, a blowsy, gorgon of a woman, no longer young, who has marched over armies and used her substantial size to steamroller her victims.
The revelation is Irwin, best known as a silent clown, who upset all expectations when he took on our most verbal playwright in the replacement cast of Albee's "The Goat." This George has a tightly wound brittleness that, ultimately, shows the venom in the coiled gray-on-gray postures of a mediocre history professor, married to the boss' ambitious daughter.
David Harbour brings a tall, rangy sex appeal to the mixture of impulses in Nick, the biology teacher with more goals than even he understands. Mireille Enos is a bit of a one-note cartoon as Honey, Nick's “slim-hipped" emotionally-fragile wifey, but she has a remarkable variety of weepy smiles.
Jane Greenwood has dressed everyone with a terrific eye for dullness. That headband on Martha is perhaps even more inspired than her tarted-up seduction blouse.
And what a pleasure to luxuriate in Albee's words, his prescient uneasiness about genetic science and his tender mercilessness for people who, as George says, are "merely exercising what's left of our wits."
Even then, Albee, whose subsequent unpredictable new work continues to enrich what's left of grownup drama, understood the perils of giving audiences more of the same from his most famous script.
He knew that the commercial theater wanted him to stay "in the living room with a lot of drinking and yelling." Always the troublemaker, fortunately, he yells in whatever room he pleases.
Pack up the kids and start the car: It's time for another dysfunctional family outing on Broadway.
Recent seasons have brought numerous revivals of classic American plays showcasing tortured marriages and damaged children, from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and, this year, The Glass Menagerie.
Now, British director Anthony Page, who brought us 2003's uneven Cat, is helming a more feral production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (* * * 1/2 out of four), which opened Sunday at the Longacre Theatre.
Like Page's last Broadway project, Woolf is familiar to most via a film adaptation that starred Elizabeth Taylor - in this case opposite her then-real-life husband, Richard Burton, whose tempestuous relationship with Taylor made the pair an obvious choice for Albee's bickering spouses George and Martha.
In contrast, Page's stars, Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, bring no apparent personal baggage to these roles, but both handily shrug off the shadows of the Hollywood icons who preceded them. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal Martha than Turner, who also walked in Taylor's heels in a 1989 staging of Cat. Reeling across John Lee Beatty's handsome set, awash in the swirls of booze and cigarette smoke that are her character's sustenance, she is at once seductive and repellent, projecting all the bruised sensuality and wounded pride underlying Martha's carping.
Irwin, conversely, offers an expert portrait of a seemingly frail, cowed fellow whose authority and cunning are revealed to us bit by bit. Even as we're amused and horrified by their brutality, we come to see how this man and his wife depend on each other, and are reminded why they remain the most iconic of Albee's challenged but deeply connected couples.
Two equally capable actors are on hand to play the younger houseguests Nick and Honey, whose superficial contentment becomes a foil for George and Martha's troubled bond. Tall, blond and handsome, David Harbour introduces Nick, an upstart professor who works with George at the college run by Martha's father, as a slick golden boy, then deftly shows us his eagerness and raw opportunism. And as the frail Honey, whose tenuous poise is undone by large doses of brandy, Mireille Enos turns in what is sure to be one of this season's most memorable comic performances.
I wouldn't advise trying to throw a party like the one that these four stumble through. But as domestic nightmares go, this Virginia Woolf offers more entertainment and insight than anything you're likely to experience at home.