Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep, THrough 18 May, 2014
This one created a mild household disruption. The Lovely Bride declared she would rather spend the partly-raining Sunday afternoon working in the garden, or grinding for more cooking components in GW2, or doing practically anything else than show up for this play. And indeed, it was an impossible ticket to fob off on any of our various friends. It is a fifty year old play. That runs three hours and change. Dealing with a deeply dysfunctional couple and their squabbles. Who yell at each other a lot. Everyone is a horrible person doing horrible things to each other. For three hours. Who could resist?
However, I had just read WAVW for a play-writing class (ever notice that it is such a 21C thing to acronym such things? And to verb out former nouns? BID), I girded my loins for the battle, and with the mom-in-law set out for the Rep. I actually wanted to see the difference between the page and the stage, and figure out why Moby Woolf, the great white whale of Albee's canon, deserves the attention it gets (spoiler: It does).
Here's the short bit for those who never saw the Taylor/Burton version from back in the 60s (which was almost exact to the play). George and Martha invite newcomers Nick and Honey over for drinks after a faculty mixer at a New England college. George is an associate professor who's career stalled out, and Martha his wife who is also the daughter of the School Dean. Hmmm. That's doesn't do it quite right. Martha is a blowsy, drunken harridan who belittles George at every turn. George is a sadistic worm who is gets his own shots in. Nick and Honey are the "nice couple" who just arrived there, but each has their own dark side.
And it is an Albee play, in that they throw these frogs into the pond and then slowly turn up the heat. But the thing is, unlike a lot of Albee plays I have tried to digest over the years, it is all done smoothly and effortlessly, and the characters are always alert, always engaged, always evolving. George and Martha are playing a game of wits at a level that Nick and Honey cannot imagine, and the younger couple, the ambitious Nick in particular, walk into a relationship buzzsaw in the process.
So reading the work, I saw the play as the counterpoint of thrust and parry, feint and attack. On the stage, with the brilliant cast, it becomes much more alive and spontaneous. The actors manage that most difficult of bits of stage magic - making you believe that you are watching in real time, and that everything flows smoothly from one bit to the next. Bits of stage business, mannerisms, even the readings of the line are spur-of-the-moment, taking the play in directions I had not first encountered. Voices drop, accents attempted, lines played for humor. There are smart, deadly people sounding smart and deadly.
Indeed, one thing that was weird about the play was the laughter from the audience. Not nervous laughter, but people actually recognizing and responding to bits they recognized. It was a trifle disconcerting, honestly, because it was such an odd smattering. Everyone would laugh at a line, but some guy in the SE corner or some woman on the north side of the audience would suddenly peal loose with a deep guffaw, which freaked me just a little. People were really engaging here.
I think part of this is the natural reading of the play itself. Lines are walked on, thrown off, and generally treated as real conversations. The end result is the often ponderous text of an Albee play (and yeah, there are long monologues fully intact) as directed by Neil Simon. And part of it is the length - there is time to root around in the histories of these characters, setting up for later action. But it is an interesting effect nonetheless.
The actors, by the way, throw all-in for the three hour haul (with another performance in the evening). Such heavy lifting is the only way this works. Pamela Reid is a marvelous lush as Martha, and I hope she chooses to do more with the company. Long-standing veteran R. Hamilton Wright makes George both sympathetic and an absolute bastard (indeed, it was his presence that tipped the scales to me going). Aaron Blakely has been at the REP before, and you can just see him calculating that he can get the upper hand of George (and he is so very, very wrong). Nick's ultimate humiliation is clear and concise as as deadly as anything Martha does to George. And Honey, played by Amy Hill, is just brilliant. In the text, she seems to serve as an anchor - keeping the players trapped in one location, but she sparkles as the ultimately vapid young swimmer who suddenly and unknowingly finds herself among the sharks.
This is a fine culmination of the Rep season (yes, there is one more, Once, which is over that the Paramount and with a touring company, so I really think of that one as the annual trip to the zoo with you school class - not really having much to do with the Rep save for organization). I should do a summary after that, but for the moment, yeah, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is classic, straight-up, we're going to give you some real solid theatre type of theatre. Go enjoy it.
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