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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Longacre Theatre

Until Friday, I had never seen Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (Or rather, as the playbill has it, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Oh that "Who's Afraid...") I've seen the film adaptation, of course; I even own a DVD of it - as of yet unwatched - so I was familiar with the unpleasant story, and that was not a draw. Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin were the draw. There are three great big revivals on Broadway right now - this one and two plays by Tennessee Williams - and when it came time some months ago to decide which one to see I picked this one. Kathleen Turner has made some great movies, but she is a force of nature on stage. Bill Irwin, of course, is our most celebrated mime. Getting older, perhaps, and wishing to stay on stage without attempting increasingly painful acrobatics, Mr Irwin has taken up acting with his voice, and this is his second Albee production on Broadway. (In the first, he succeeded Bill Pullman in The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia.) A lithe man and not a large one, the actor can easily trick you into thinking that his George really is what Martha calls him at the very start - a "cluck." Anyway, that's why we went to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Now, sometimes when you go to the theatre on the strength of such calculations - "X is a great stage actor" in this case; but it could just as easily be any other aspect of a production that drew you, and doubtless there are those who simply don't miss shows with sets by John Lee Beatty, or costumes by Jane Greenwood, or lighting by Peter Kaczorowski (all doing excellent work at the Longacre) - you can be disappointed, but more often, I find, you get exactly what you pay for - in this case, the satisfaction of watching Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin take possession of the stage. And that's all you get. But in this case, there was a lot more on offer. There was, to begin with, Anthony Page's direction. I am often insensible of the efforts of directors, but I wasn't this time. I could feel that somebody, some one person, had developed a singular view of the play and then inspired four very different actors to realize it. Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin weren't up there doing bravado turns; they were connected. And they were connected to the other two actors in the show, David Harbour as Nick and Mireille Enos as Honey, in such an intricate way that I came out of the theatre feeling sorry not for George and Martha, who seemed, all things considered, to have a healthy, if hyperactive, marriage, but for Honey and Nick, who perhaps might have not much of a future together at all.

Let me lose no time applauding the supporting cast. Honey's role is the smallest by far of the four; it is her sojourns in the bathroom, after all, that prolong the "party." Mireille Enos managed to be delicious most of the time, but showed her teeth on several occasions; a tiny woman, at least compared to her company, she did not seem weak or defenseless, and her stab at drunken interpretive dancing was glorious. But Honey is married to a wolf, a bruiser, and watching David Harbour unfold the unattractive contradictions of Nick's personality was what I will remember best, or at least until I see Mr Harbour again. I saw him for the first time at about this time last year, in MTC's Between Us; his Joel in that play was a good part, but nothing like Nick. And much of the credit for Mr Harbour's performance has to go to Bill Irwin. Here is a George who really devotes himself to keeping Nick not only on edge but on display. At twenty-eight, Nick is pretty full of himself, but he knows that there are things he doesn't know, and he is very eager to conceal these lapses, while assiduously bluffing his way through filling them. Adding a contemporary touch to the 1960 setting, perhaps, Mr Harbour shows, in the fine disjointings of Nick's baited makeup, that we have come to be a species that takes a very long time to grow up - to knit our bones. To be so coltish and so near thirty! Mr Harbour gives us a Nick whose insecurity and instability, hitherto under control, can only, out in the open, make him dangerous.

That this play should be seen as the tragedy, not of George and Martha, but of Nick and Honey, is not to stand it on its head. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a play about marriage, and how much it can take, and George and Martha have built a very capacious union. There is even room in it for an imaginary child. The child's role in this marriage is not an unusual one: it is to demonstrate to each "parent" how ghastly and damaging the other one is. It doesn't take much effort to imagine George and Martha falling into this game, exchanging sarcastic hypotheticals early on and only gradually abbreviating the formulaic "what if." Nor does it take much effort to imagine Martha losing her step with Honey, offstage on their tour of the house, and responding to Honey's admission of childlessness by taking her private game public. This is the central event in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, even if, as in so many classical dramas, it takes place out of sight. George is outraged by the invasion of his intimacy, and moves swiftly from very reluctant host to ardent ringmaster. Luckily for him, he is already in possession of several boasts and confessions from Nick. And he resolves to kill the child.

Mike Nichols's 1966 film of the play famously stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Were they married at the time, or were they breaking up? Getting back together? Who knows. (Yes, I could look it up, but...) Their tempestuous relationship was a bigger feature of life in the Sixties than is commonly remembered, and the movie is little more than an exponent of it. Ms Taylor plays a harpy to Burton's wounded Fisher King. The play itself is a comedy, at least for George and Martha, a sort of inverted screwball comedy, with innocent frolic being replaced by rough trade. It would be unsound to say that George and Martha are happy people. But they have developed a modus vivendi to help them through this vale of tears; they have done it together and it helps both of them. What went wrong in their respective pasts is of no concern; you may concoct any backstory that you like. But you must recognize that they have arrived at a relationship that, however stinging, is genuinely free of hatred (at least for the other).

Younger members of the audience will no doubt have an easier time seeing the period elements of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but I managed to remind myself of a few. The phrase "faculty wives" has passed from the ubiquity of "administration building" to the marginally likely title of a porn flick. Faculty wives were kept very busy as I recall, but not doing anything important. At least half of Martha's fury I attribute to her lack of a personal vocation; she is certainly no housewife, and she has obviously been abusing her "position" as daughter of the school's president as a way of escaping the drudgery of teas and committees. One can see, however, that Honey is all lined up and ready for the role. The question for her is whether she'll remain with Nick. In his long scene with George in the first act, a Nick of today would doubtless be armed with truly effective defenses for warding off George's niggling thrusts and parries; I can well hear him exclaiming, "Too much information!"

In 1960, the world inhabited by these characters was just beginning to consider throwing off the carapace of respectability. Nobody knew where it came from, and nobody saw in it much beyond hypocrisy. We, living in a post-respectable world, might be forgiven for taking pity on people who felt very sure of the ground beneath their feet, unaware that it was the illusion, and that, without respectability, they would not know where they stand. (May 2005)

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