“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a play ruined by its reputation. Even people who’ve never seen Edward Albee’s celebrated scorcher know this bruising, bloody, no-holds-barred battle is a portrait of a marriage in meltdown that makes the complete works of Strindberg look like “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” But while director James Macdonald takes that as given, he takes his actors deeper below the surface to challenge perception. Skewed and screaming as it is, this marriage, on its own terms, works. The production proves the play is a portrait of love.
Arriving home less-than-sober in the wee small hours from a Saturday night faculty party, Martha (Imelda Staunton) announces to her husband George (Conleth Hill) that she has invited two new party guests over for more drinks. And when Nick (suitably handsome Luke Treadaway) and his mousey wife Honey (Imogen Poots) turn up, Martha has all the spectators — and victims — she needs.
Albee’s subtitle for the first act, “Fun and Games,” is usually interpreted as being witheringly sarcastic. But Macdonald returns fun to the proceedings. Staunton’s initially bright-eyed Martha (she ends hollow-eyed in pain) ricochets between the caustic and the kittenish. (Top marks to designer Tom Pye for Martha’s battle uniform of sheer, see-through blouse, black pedal-pushers and slingbacks.) She has wound herself up and is itching to use all the weapons in her considerable armory. She’s flinging out insults as she slings back the booze but she’s deliciously gleeful, never more so than when George rises to the occasion to present himself as her beloved sparring partner. The fact that her behavior is greeted by repeated rounds of delighted audience laughter is proof that she is being genuinely funny.
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Not only does this allow us to see why this terrifying marriage has survived over two decades, it emphasizes both the depth and, crucially, the breadth of Albee’s writing. It stands in sharp relief to the altogether more dangerous second act (“Walpurgisnacht”), not to mention the brutal showdown and ultimate elegiac quality of the final act, “The Exorcism”.
With his calm, low center of gravity, Hill is an ideal foil to Staunton. Shambling where she’s spry, he’s measured, but not so much as to deny his complicity. George and Martha are like doubles partners sharing quick moments of exaltation whenever they score a fast point against their opponents. But Hill is also watchful. It’s clear he has made a fateful decision, and beneath his air of compliance he’s playing the long game. But he never overly indicates the fact. Macdonald’s tight direction ensures that the two of them, so skilled at game-playing, keep their cards supremely close to their chests. None of the actors ever anticipate a line or a mood change. That allows Albee’s carefully crafted emotional crescendos and climaxes to happen exactly when they need to.
Albee once said that he would stand at the back of theaters conducting the dialogue. He could tell how a performance was going by the rise and fall and rhythm of the dialogue. By that measure, this one is outstandingly successful. But rhythm isn’t everything.
Wide-eyed and hopeful Poots suffers beautifully as nervy Honey, but Treadaway is miscast as Nick. The actor created not only lonesome animal-loving Albert in “War Horse” but also the central character in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Vulnerability and clarity of thought are his (extremely) strong suits. Neither of those are needed for Nick who, having fallen prey to Honey’s naivety and wealth, is enough of a fool again to capitulate, temporarily, to Martha. Treadaway’s Nick seems too intelligent to fall for George and Martha’s machinations.
With that dynamic off-balance, the latter stages of the play feel a shade effortful. Staunton’s mounting desperation and descent into terror about her son is startlingly well-calibrated (not for nothing did she win her fourth Olivier award last year for her shockingly self-lacerating Rose in “Gypsy”) but her closely-held physicality is at odds with the dialogue of a woman broken.
In the early Sixties, when Broadway depictions of contemporary marriage aspired to the condition of “Barefoot in the Park,” Albee’s caustic expose of life behind closed doors was so shocking that the administrators of the Pulitzer prize barred it from winning. That Albee’s runway hit still has the power to grip and chill audiences — most especially with the unexpectedly tender and hopeful final image — is a tribute to the shared vision of a production team honoring a master.