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Much is also familiar in Steppenwolf Theatre’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the bleak, boozy 1962 marital shocker that cemented Albee’s reputation. Designer Todd Rosenthal’s studied, dreary New England faculty bungalow looks as down-at-heels and lived-in as ever, its well-stocked bar beckoning George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) the moment they stagger home from a faculty meet-and-greet.
The dialogue’s familiar, too. “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.” “That’s blood under the bridge.” “I said I was impressed; I’m beside myself with jealousy. What do you want me to do, throw up?” “Good, better, best, bested. How do you like that declension?” “You’re all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.” “We’ve played Humiliate the Host…what should we do now?…how about Hump the Hostess?”
I walked into Woolf knowing those lines and many, many more—and looking forward to hearing them delivered by Letts and Morton, the respective author and star of August: Osage County, another scabrous domestic melodrama that owes a lot to this play. But what caught me short in Pam MacKinnon’s oft-startling production was a linguistically unremarkable exchange near the start of the play that I’d never noticed before.
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Albee’s opening, relationship-establishing scene, which always surprises me by being as guffaw-eliciting as anything penned by Neil Simon, surprised me again with its economy and wit—setup, punchline, setup, punchline—its snark and insult outlining a lifetime of marital strife. Martha is demanding another drink, George is protesting that that’s the last thing she needs. And then, with Martha sitting barefoot on the couch, and George slouching warily nearby, there’s an ever-so-brief lull in the hostilities. A tiny smile passes between them, their voices gentling for just three words:
George: Hello, honey.
And you suddenly see the sweethearts they’d been. Back before the booze, barbs, and bile, before orneriness calcified into viciousness. They’re murmuring hello to the kids they remember but don’t see in each other much any more, and they mean it. They really mean it. And that raises the stakes immeasurably. For an instant, it’s possible to imagine that fun and games, just this once, won’t lead to walpurgisnacht and exorcism.
Then their guests, Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), arrive, and the hostilities resume.
Letts is an uncharacteristically dominant George, making the milquetoast assistant professor’s passive-aggression into something more like active aggression; that makes for an intriguingly balanced first act, in which host and hostess are evenly matched as they lob emotional grenades at each other. Morton is brazen—a seductive Mrs. Robinson to Dirks’ callow biology prof—but she’s also more vulnerable than most Marthas, letting you see fear in her eyes when George starts altering the rules of their familiar games. Relegated to the sidelines, drunkenly peeling labels off brandy bottles, Coons blurts Honey’s lines with a precociousness that freshens.
George’s showiness proves a less effective strategy late in the play than at the outset. Letts makes him appear so confident and in control in Act Two that Nick looks like an idiot for letting down his guard and confiding in him. Still, the play’s built up much steam by that time, and it isn’t until the final act, when the performers start placing dramatic pauses between words through which whole caravans of feeling could be driven, that the evening falters.
Even then, the memory of that tiny smile that passed between George and Martha earlier lingers—an ache of nostalgia, to go with all that anguish.
The Edward Albee readings you should go to—and the ones you should skip.