Theater Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at American Stage is vicious and vibrant

In case you’ve forgotten the great film – with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, directed by Mike Nichols – here’s the Marital Wrestling Federation recap. George and Martha are a middle-aged couple in a small college town, New Carthage. Martha’s the disgruntled daughter of the college president, and George is a history professor whose career has been a disappointment, to himself and to his wife. In the middle of the night, after a faculty party has ended, they welcome into their home two new inhabitants of New Carthage: young biology professor Nick and his simpering wife Honey.


And then the slamdowns begin.


The main bout is George vs. Martha, but there are tag teams and gang-ups, no private hell goes unremarked and no raw wound goes unsalted. There’s more alcohol than you’ll find behind the bar of most pubs, there are games like Get the Guest and Hump the Hostess and a few others, and when it’s over a change has occurred — because this time, someone goes too far. If truth-telling is cathartic (and not just surly and mean-spirited), you could say we witness a cartharsis.


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So how do the actors — Christine Decker as Martha, Richard B. Watson as George, Betty-Jane Parks as Honey, and Matthew Stephen Huffman as Nick — size up next to the film performers?


Well, Decker and Watson are superb, Parks and Huffman more than adequate. To start with Decker’s Martha: this is a woman who respects nothing but power, and who looks around every day and sees nothing but wimps. She loves her husband like a parasite loves its host — can’t imagine living with anyone else — and there’s no one she wants to hurt more than dear old George.


As for Watson’s George, he’s a scrapper: looks weaker at first than Martha (and looks distractingly like Burton), but he’s never down for very long, and can be counted on for the most vicious stratagems. The other thing about Watson’s George: his wounds are the more tender, so his defenses are the more desperate.As Nick, Huffman does creditable work and is pretty much solid, but it’s hard to see him as an academic or even a thinker; and Parks titters enough as the silly Honey, but never really seems to dominate the part. Todd Olsen’s direction is shockingly good — there’s more mean sex here than in the movie — and Scott Cooper’s set, though unsettlingly posh, gives lots of range for the various free-for-alls. The play feels long at three hours, but what the heck, it’s an epic.


And it’s quite an experience. I love the film, but there are colors here that the film doesn’t include, and I’m glad to have witnessed them. In any case, Virginia Woolf, like most theatrical masterpieces, can be enjoyed in lots of different versions. This is truly an American classic — and if you’ve always suspected that Our Town isn’t the whole story, take a trip to New Carthage. George and Martha will invite you in — and then hold on to your naked heart.

Several years ago, the Polish critic Jan Kott published a book called The Theatre of Essence, and ever since then that provocative title has affected how I think of a whole class of modern play. Waiting for Godot is a play of essence, I think — the tramps Didi and Gogo represent not real hobos but a modern spiritual inscape composed of doubt and longing, terror and confusion. A play like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also shows us the essential — in this case, pure id, animal desire, demanding, craving, shouting to be heard above the din made by the other beasts.

And after having seen the fine production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at American Stage, I’m convinced that this too belongs to the theater of essence – that its real subject is the madness that every good marriage represses, the hatred and rage and resentment that lurk somewhere south of consciousness and only surface, in most relationships, for the briefest of moments before the apologies start and “normal” functioning resumes.

If Virginia Woolf is a great play – and I think it is – then its greatness comes from its pitiless illumination of the evil beneath our best intentions, an evil which doesn’t cease to hunger for its moment. And instead of an embarrassing slip of the tongue — which is already more than most people render — George and Martha offer us three full, noisy acts of unrestrained malice. The resulting spectacle is gripping, enthralling and (nervously) very funny.

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