Sunday, May 22, 2005

"Jesus... I am..."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Edward Albee's first full-length play, his first play on Broadway, and surely the work for which he will be remembered. Since its legendary 1962 premiere (starring Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill) theatergoers and academics have been debating what the play is truly about. Is it a naturalistic setting of an absurdist melodrama? The playwright's previous plays The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, and The American Dream all were heavily influenced by the Theater of the Absurd. Is it a long night's journey into day in the house of two aging homosexuals entertaining a younger gay couple? Albee has, time and again, refused to give his approval to present the play with an all-male cast. Or is it really, on a larger scale, about the inability of America to fulfill its historical idealistic dreams? Albee has pointed out that he named his leading characters George and Martha as an obvious allusion to America's first president, and the missus.

I saw the current Broadway production at the Saturday matinee on May 21. The four members of the cast were present. George was played by Bill Irwin, Martha by Kathleen Turner, Nick by David Harbour, and Honey by Mireille Enos. All four actors are nominated for this year's Tony awards in their respective categories.

The most memorable performance in this production is being given by the talented Bill Irwin. In the role of George, Irwin, who is better known for his life-long work as a clown, and for the plays Largely New York and Fool Moon has not left behind his artistic roots. In the great tradition of the great sad clowns of stage and screen (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Emmett Kelly) he brings to the role of George an alooft sense of defeat and resignation that makes his characterization poignant and brings out the absurdity that's already present in the inner marrow of this work. The backbone of his performance radiates with a bittersweetness that only a clown can produce. His performance is superb on all accounts, and it deserves to be honored with the Tony this year.

Kathleen Turner's performance is very good: her smoky voice and ample form lend themselves ideally for this role. What's missing from her interpretation is a certain grandeur that all great Marthas must deliver. She effectively portrays the tawdry boozy Martha who loudly slaps her chest to accentuate her histrionic rage. But in Act III, when she tells Nick "You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you're all flops" this is one of the rare moments when the play rises above the muck and mire to become mythic, and the actress playing Martha must rise right along with it. Sadly, Kathleen Turner remains very much eathbound during these climactic times, and it hurts her performance.

Edward Albee suggested that the name Nick was derived from Soviet Cold-War premier Nikita Khrushchev, and in this role David Harbour plays the opportunistic all-American biologist with a disingenuous grin and frat-boy attitude. Mireille Enos plays his wife Honey with a proper Midwest accent and the required innocent inhibitions. As the evening progresses and her character's layers are peeled away, Ms. Enos' performance becomes even more interesting, and she ends up giving us a very intelligent reading of this difficult part.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (according to theater lore, Edward Albee found the words that make up the title of this play scribbled in the bathroom of a bar in the Village) is a demanding play for both audiences and performers. Its three-hour length and its disturbing subject matter is not always easy to take. The work has not been on Broadway in over 30 years, and if you have only seen the Mike Nichols film (with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) then it will be worth your while experiencing it in the theater: the place where it was meant to be seen.

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