at the theatre: who’s afraid of virginia woolf?

For anyone with even a passing knowledge of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the ghosts of Burton and Taylor loom large. Not necessarily because their performances in Mike Nichols’ terrifying noir exorcism are good per se – though they are superlative – but because they have been committed to celluloid, which has become our culture’s lingua franca. (Arguing about the superiority of Uta Hagen’s Martha in Alan Schneider’s original staging is a bit like the arguments made for Laurette Taylor’s turn in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie:  you had to be there. The legacy of the ephemeral artist evaporates with time.) Which is one of the reasons why Tracy Letts – the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County – is so successful as the male half of Albee’s dynamic duo in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Woolf which opened at the Booth Theatre exactly 50 years after the original Broadway opening. Letts gives a tightly controlled, calibrated impersonation of Richard Burton as George. Like a floor show playing out in front of a movie screen it’s familiar, if not entirely authentic. With crisp enunciation, Letts’ muscular, musical delivery, is at once stylized and powerful but there’s something ineffable missing here: the humanity  On the flip side Amy Morton’s Martha is all too human, throwing off the balance of this marital cage match. You get what the actress is after: trying to get as far away as possible from Taylor’s lasciviously boozy floozy. As admirable as it is to see this fine actress stretch to find Martha’s desperate depths beneath the bluster, Woolf is not a realistic drama; it’s a Walpurgisnacht, as Albee himself titled the second of the play’s three acts: a highly stylized – dare I say theatrical? – transfigured night. Morton expends so much Chekovian energy being miserable that when she finally confesses to Nick  – who, along with Honey, is a virtual non-entity in this outing – that George is the only man who ever made her happy, it rings false. Nothing could make this woman happy – except perhaps a train to Moscow.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *