Yes, yes, I know... Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is supposed to be a funny play. I agree. It's hilarious! But I believe the brilliance of this piece, and it is a brilliant piece, comes from being a serious drama about people who happen to be very funny. You don't marvel at the Albee wit or the expert comic timing of the actors playing the central roles of George and Martha. Instead you laugh at the wit and timing of the characters being portrayed. And as the play becomes uglier and the couple more abusive, they are still just as clever as they were in that jolly Act I. It's just that you may not find them funny any more.
So if I felt rather underwhelmed by the new Broadway revival, it's because it seemed too much like I was watching a comedy.
A quick refresher: Back in 1962, when spousal abuse was spoken of even less openly than it is now, and although there was a sexual revolution on the rise, the idea that people can derive pleasure from pain was still considered rather sick to most, Edward Albee introduced Broadway to George, a college professor who married his way to a decent position, and his wife Martha, who doesn't mind reminding him of it at any available moment. Their brand of mutual emotional abuse, usually through crackling cut-downs, may seem cruel on the surface but appears to be the most passionate and sustaining aspect of their marriage. The play takes place through the course of a late-night visit by Nick and Honey, a prototypical ideal American couple of the time; he the masculine young go-getter with several layers of emotional walls and she the pretty and peppy housewife who lives to nurture because that's what's expected of her. At the end of this little episode of Christians vs. Lions, you're left to consider who really has the healthier, longer-lasting relationship.
The production is mostly cast with actors who portray the expected interpretations. Kathleen Turner makes for a boisterous and commanding Martha, barely masking her vulnerabilities through scathing humor. David Harbour (Nick) and Mireille Enos (Honey) are appropriately horrified, defensive and intrigued when needed. But the odd man in the mix is Bill Irwin. Now, I'm not going to lay blame on the actor for his unsatisfying turn as George. Although Anthony Page directed the production, it was Albee himself who hand-picked the pairing of Turner and Irwin after six years of considering and auditioning many big-name actors. He was satisfied that this was the cast that could deliver the chemistry he wanted. And although I always welcome untraditional interpretations, this one has me baffled.
Watching Irwin's George skillfully flicking away Martha's barbs with a wispy effervescence certainly was funny, but I kept wondering if he was ever going to mount his own attack. His smirks and melodic delivery helped the jokes score, but there was never any sense of danger underneath. So later on, when he finally tries to work up a good frothy anger, it seems false and absurdly out of character.
Another odd thing about his interpretation. I won't go so far as to make a blanket statement like "he's playing him gay", but I feel secure in the knowledge that if you dropped a fellow with his appearance and mannerisms onto the middle of Christopher Street, the local denizens would have no trouble believing him to be a teammate. Which makes me wonder if Albee intended for us to think of the whole straight woman/gay man dynamic. That would explain why Martha seems to have no sexual control over George in this one.
But then, it wouldn't really be an Edward Albee play if we didn't leave the theatre arguing over what he really meant. And bless him for that!
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Kathleen Turner
Middle: Bill Irwin, Mireille Enos, David Harbour and Kathleen Turner
Bottom: Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner