It’s impossible to imagine the shock visited upon Broadway by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when it opened 50 years ago: the ancient taboos casually obliterated with tossed-off one-liners; the antic sexual frankness; the naked rage; the deepening, satanic night of drinking and verbal dagger-play, continuing relentlessly until every cherished illusion is eviscerated — all delivered with wit so winning and characters so diabolically relatable, audiences couldn’t help applauding what was, patently and proudly, a tale of their own decline. (The play won the Tony in ’63 but was denied the Pulitzer on “obscenity” grounds.) You can’t recapture that moment, of course: Who’s Afraid is literature now — another tome in George’s mouldering library — with all the relative safety that comes with that label. The story of the deceptively damp academic George, his barracuda faculty wife Martha, and their unfortunate, asymmetrically armed cocktail guests Nick and Honey — invited for late-night drinks, conned and cornered into witnessing and participating in a Miltonic marital battle — is written into our cultural DNA. (Largely via Mike Nichols’s 1966 film.) And, of course, many of its salient features, not least its prankish, pop-polyglot elision of naturalism and the absurd, have been co-opted by successors. But director Pam Mackinnon and her violently good Steppenwolf cast — Tracy Letts as George, Amy Morton as Martha, Madison Dirks as Nick, and Carrie Coon as Honey — give us a taste of first blood, like it’s our first time in the ring.
I’ve written about this production before, with a focus on Letts’s George. It’s a remarkable reclamation of a role that, in many productions, can depend overmuch on an appearance of physical weakness and nebbish-y sucker-punching: The default seems to be a love child of Adlai Stevenson and Woody Allen. That approach is perfectly legitimate, but Letts — along with Mackinnon and Morton — have brought something of the ruddy Middle West with them into this den of sophisticated Eastern sots. His George, tuba-voiced and solidly fleshed, is no wallflower but a born lecturer, and a bit of a bully, all the more vicious and unpredictable because he’s a gelding, in life, in love, in his profession. (“Martha tells me often that I am IN the history department … as opposed to BEING the history department, in the sense of RUNNING the history department.”)
But I was struck anew by Amy Morton’s Martha, the way she parries George’s every thrust. (It’s usually played the other way around.) Morton has restored a great deal of dignity and humanity to a role that’s easy to play as a simple harridan. Most actresses, I think, are afraid to show fear as Martha, worrying that it will undermine her or rug-pull her alpha-predator status. Morton has no such qualms. She is a dangerous animal pair-bonded to another dangerous animal, and the way she ducks her mate when he bears down on her feels chillingly practiced. This is a game they’ve played before, a dance they both know — but not the way it’s come down to us. There are fresh wounds atop the old bruises, and grim surprises in store, even for those of us who know this script chapter and verse.
Coons, always operating at the border of hamming, stays on the right side, just, and delivers what I believe is the best Honey I’ve ever seen, a woman so spectacularly out of her depth (and so swiftly, obliviously blotto), she’s actually better off than her husband, who’s made the fatal mistake of believing himself equipped for anything. Nick is designed to be a contempt magnet, a young biology professor on the make, eager to climb the faculty ladder; Dirks, with spit-curl and oil-cured good looks, gives us one of our nastiest yet most pitiable Nicks yet, as sympathetic as he is pathetic.
But the star is Mackinnon herself, who has approached Who’s Afraid as a symphonic piece. So much of its spell depends on its music, and under her baton, the insults and insinuations and bloviations flow into each other as if conducted by Bernstein. You could close your eyes and simply listen to this show and be satisfied — if, indeed, satisfaction is a word one would associate with Woolf. At the end of its three acts (in just over three hours), I felt full and, at the same time, emptied of everything. What a marvelous bloodletting.