Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Pam MacKinnon

Broadway Review | Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee | With Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks | Directed by Pam MacKinnon | Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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.

Review | Completeness by Itamar Moses | Directed by Pam MacKinnon | Playwrights Horizons

Itamar Moses catches today’s lingo like butterflies.  Completeness is about young people, in the Computer Science and Biology Departments of a university, talking about love, molecular biology and computer science, while going through a variety of partners.  It’s good to have a play about people who are intelligent and care about their work.

Elliot is a Computer Science Assistant Professor (or thereabouts) who — beyond his sleepy-eyed cool — is dedicated to solving THE problem in Computer Science, “The Salesman’s Problem” — and if you see the play, he will tell you all about its complexities.  He’s so articulate you feel he knows everything, except how to resolve the conflict between his anxiety about commitment (described in a hilariously hyperbolic monolog that’s a high point of the play) and a yearning to settle in with “the one” or “love” or whatever.

At the start, he’s in the process of ushering Lauren out of his bedroom and, in little time, ushering Molly in:  she’s a grad student in molecular biology, and this seems promising because she’s as passionate about identifying a difficult-to-isolate protein as he is about “The Salesman’s Problem.”   She’s a bit of a clickety-clackety run-on speaker — but that’s her enthusiasm, and anyhow he finds her adorable.  Work is one level of existence, love’s another – and they both have had an eye on each other which adds up to it doesn’t take long to get naked and into bed.

Elliot sets about developing an algorithm to aid Molly’s scientific project.  I found that really great:  not only are they each intellectually engaged with their own work, they can work together!  The playwright tries taking it to a more generalized level:  that since he’s a Computer Scientist and she’s a Molecular Biologist, they complement each other not only as individuals but also in some broad sense of a union of life and mathematical abstraction. But that last comes across more like a sound bite;  it makes the play easy to talk about, but isn’t fully realized.

Molly ditches her older Advisor/Professor in favor of Elliot (you can be sure the professor isn’t alone for long), and then, when Elliot and Molly are driven apart by their individual commitment angst, various partnerings arise — fast.  Inner anguish and jealousy are expressed but never trouble the play’s bright, witty, surface.  Whatever the characters are going through, we’re having a good time.

The characters themselves question why their generation is so fast about getting to sex, and so distant from commitment.  There’s a resonant truth in the line about partnering, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” an issue for this generation I’ve read about in the news.  Promiscuity in this play doesn’t seem to be making anybody happy but it makes for a lot of amusing lines and situations which keep the audience happy.

In spite of all the lengths they go to explain themselves, though, and the fine acting, the characters seem types, though amusingly recognizable types.  Why does this pair bond or not bond?  We don’t sense it deeply, it could go either way.  And it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

The success of Completeness owes a lot to the excellent cast and brisk direction.  Karl Miller plays the oh so sharp Elliot with intelligence and perfect timing, and makes the part his own.  Whether about love or molecules, Aubrey Dollar spins Molly’s recitatives almost as fast as Figaro in the Barbara of Seville.  Meredith Forlenza shows range as three avatars of contemporary young women including Lauren, the one with residual romantic expectations.  Brian Avers plays with great appeal both the older professor who’s stuck on bench science and resists computer modeling, and the graduate student who sees through him.  They are all fun to watch.

Completeness is comic fluff – not a “must” but it’s enjoyable.

Completeness plays at Playwrights Horizons on Wests 42nd Street in Manhattan through September 25th.

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