More than 40 years after it was first seen and almost three decades since its last Broadway revival, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” remains a searing study of a marriage based on mutual flagellation, photographed in the form of a war plan that charts insidious subversive tactics, messy guerrilla assaults and deadly frontal attacks before registering the aching hollowness of defeat and surrender. If Anthony Page’s impeccably classy and respectful staging has a somewhat muted quality that allows the drama to fire on all cylinders only intermittently, the stunning cruelty and compassion of the writing still stands tall.
Of course, the main strength in any production of Albee’s best-known play lies in the casting of George and Martha, the stymied New England college professor and his braying, belittling wife, whose savage games belie their desperate interdependency. While both Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner here give off frequent flashes of incisive wit and naked emotional need camouflaged by hardened indifference, neither seems to have a consistent grip on their character.
From “Body Heat” through “War of the Roses,” Turner’s screen career would appear to be a rehearsal for Martha. Her husky, lived-in voice brings haunted poignancy to Martha’s submission when George ruthlessly tips the scales in the couple’s fragile balance of truth and illusion. While she arguably undersells Martha’s obscenity, Turner saunters through the role’s gin-soaked, blowzy flirtatiousness and wry disgust with ease.
But much of the performance is marked by a nagging shortage of authority or, more to the point, ferocity. Martha’s festering rancor toward her husband for his failure to make a mark — remaining “in the history department as opposed to being the history department,” despite having a father-in-law who’s faculty president — seems only partially tapped by Turner.
A far less obvious casting stroke, Irwin’s buttoned-up physicality feeds an interesting take on George, initially as gray and spent as his cardigan vest and tweedy trousers. He conveys the man’s resilient, bristling intellect but the actor’s arch detachedness here softens both the bruising George has had to endure and the vengeful punishment he ladles out. It’s unsurprising given Irwin’s background as a gifted comic and mime that his perf is twitchy, irritable and even slightly fey rather than simmering with sustained, suppressed rage the way the part is often played. But his George comes to life in fidgety fits and starts, too rarely pouncing like the wounded animal he is.
Both leads register moments of blistering power, but the overriding quietness of the approach is not always satisfying. So much restraint in a long night that navigates famously through games of humiliate-the-host, hump-the-hostess and get-the-guest before daggers are fully drawn ultimately undermines the drama’s emotional punch.
As much as the lobbing of verbal grenades between husband and wife, the play is about their exhibition of the marital minefield before the captive audience of Nick and Honey, an ambitious, cocky young newcomer to the biology department and his dim bulb of a wife. The interaction between the two couples, particularly between George and Nick, adds immeasurably to the play’s texture in terms of the friction and distrust between middle age and youth, resentful failure and aggressive promise. George sees Nick as the bland, blond superman threat; one of the ants that will take over the world.
David Harbour and Mireille Enos are every bit a match for Irwin and Turner and perhaps have a firmer handle on their characters. Harbour’s squarely handsome looks are a neat period fit — the play is set in 1960. He conveys the smooth self-possession of a former athlete who sees himself as a forgone winner in almost any situation but is unprepared to go up against a man who exercises his wits the way other people sharpen knives.
Enos seems at first to have pushed Honey too far toward borderline simple-mindedness. But as she hits the brandy bottle with increasing abandon, punctuating the evening with trips to the bathroom to throw up, the actress finds the tenderly exposed heart of unsavvy Honey, making the emotional devastation wreaked by George on the young couple even more harrowing. While the diseased contract between George and Martha clearly remains intact, the bond between Nick and Honey has been brutally unmasked as fraudulent by the play’s end.
A seasoned director of Albee plays (including the London production of “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”), Page orchestrates the proceedings with subtlety and clarity, but allows too much slackness to creep into the three-act, three-hour staging, unfolding entirely within designer John Lee Beatty’s dusty, wood-paneled living room, strewn with books and booze.
The playwright’s revised script contains some questionable decisions, jettisoning the end-of-act-two exchange in which George rehearses his coup de grace with Honey, yet retaining Martha’s meandering monologue at the start of act three, here one of Turner’s weaker moments. As sharp and brilliantly structured as the writing is the erratic electricity of this production makes one appreciate even more the intelligent economies of Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for the 1966 Mike Nichols movie, not to mention the raw, violent combustibility of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha.