This is an excellent production of a very well written and engrossing play that leaves off with an unpleasant sense of sound and fury signifying not much.
It’s about a husband and wife who constantly argue and undercut one another. This is done under the guise of what’s supposedly a significant psychological, even philosophical, revelation involving a mutually held illusion but in my view that’s a highfalutin pretext: the unlikely revelation is no more than a justification for a tremendously skilled playwright to write a total orgy of witty, sharp, well observed nastiness between a married couple. That can be a lot of fun, but it’s also pretty sordid.
George and Martha (Father of our Country? First Family?), married for 23 years, know just where to wound the other in their back and forth bickering. She’s the daughter of the President of a small New England college. He’s an ironic, underachieving Professor of History — well, only Associate Professor after all these years, as Martha is given to reminding him and the young couple, Nick and Honey, who come by for a nightcap after a faculty party.
Nick’s a new faculty member in the Biology Department and Honey’s his frail, giddy wife — like Martha without a job to call her own. It’s already late when they arrive at Martha and George’s book strewn house where they all hang out until dawn, with more drinking from the 1950’s appropriate portable bar than any four people could realistically down and remain alive in that length of time.
What keeps you engrossed is the marvelously written dialog, above all the vicious, canny backbiting between Martha and George. Each knows where the other hurts, and each seems to have as a life purpose to dig in to that spot and twist the knife. They do this with lean, sophisticated, quick, witty repartee which is fascinating to follow. If the play’s worth producing, that’s why. And if this production is worth seeing, it’s largely because Tracy Letts and Amy Morton are brilliant in their parts, the the laid back and ultimately protective George, she the no-holds barred harridan with a hidden illness at the core. These are two great actors at work on superb dialogue and for that I’m glad to have seen the play.
Carrie Coon is clever and at times hilarious as the prim, rich academic wife with a brandy addiction who dances, as she tells us, “like the wind.” Madison Dirks does a workmanlike job as the opportunistic newly hired biologist who’s willing, though not able, to sleep with faculty wives including — make that especially — the University President’s daughter, in order to make it up the academic ladder.
The set — with the oriental rugs and books piled up in the fireplace — is appealing and recognizable as the living room of entrenched college faculty.
But the picture of the academic life doesn’t ring true. George, we hear disparagingly from Martha, “writes papers”: being that productive at this middling school, he’d certainly have become a full Professor by now if the playwright — setting him up as Martha’s target — hadn’t needed him to be a flop. There’s no reason that the new hotshot biology faculty member would have to assume that the road to success was sleeping with faculty wives. Publish or perish is more like it and ambitious Nick had better get started writing some papers of his own. These characters don’t come across as real people — they’re outlandish — but the dialog is so good you hardly notice. The big revelatory ending is forced, and not really believable. But Amy Morton’s emotional rendering is so powerful you believe it while it’s happening — this great actress believes it, so while she’s at it, you do.
The real illusion here is based on Albee’s skill, strong enough to give you the illusion while you’re watching that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about something important. It isn’t. Nick and Honey — before they’re completely soused — worry that they’ve been dragged in on an indecorous husband and wife fight that they shouldn’t really be watching and they’re right. It didn’t do them any good. The play’s long on laughs but short on humanity.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Booth Theatre on West Broadway in Manhattan.