Saturday, April 02, 2005

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Despite two hours of sleep on Wednesday night and a marathon work day on Thursday, I was wide awake on Broadway Thursday night for the duration of that infamous and vicious couple's pub crawl through the home of George and Martha. The boozy evening of which I speak (for those of you who are young...or older folks who have lived under a rock) is the framework of Edward Albee's masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

For those unfamiliar with the original play or its film incarnation, it begins as if already in Act 2: George and Martha, a middle aged college professor and his wife, return home from a faculty party already inebriated and waiting for the arrival of a younger couple whom they met earlier in the evening. For the remainder of the three act play George and Martha torment each other, their guests, and especially themselves. It's an all-night binge on strange love, regret, bourbon, petty grudges, and the comfort of familiar emotional baggage. Sounds like a laugh riot, huh? Yet thanks to Albee's razor sharp skills as a writer and the indelible characters within, the play is thrillingly alive and therefore funny, smart, and joyous in the way art can be even when its subject matter is bone-crushingly dark.

Woolf is hardly Albee's only major theatrical claim to fame; he also wrote the blisteringly funny The Goat, or Who is Sylvia and Three Tall Women among other important pieces for the stage. His most recent triumph was the off Broadway The Play About the Baby which was, in a peculiar way, a kind of abstract rendering of Virginia Woolf's central mystery. Albee has also won the Pulitzer three (!) times. Yet George and Martha's epic tussle remains his signature piece. In the course of its history (1962 to the present) and throughout its various incarnations it has won 8 Tony Nominations (with more presumably to come for this production), 5 Tonys, 13 Oscar nominations, 5 Oscars, 7 Golden Globe nominations, and many others. Not too shabby.

This Broadway revival's cast features Bill Irwin (famous New York clown) as George in his second dark descent into Albee's land of tormented couples. He previously starred in The Goat I'm happy to report that he's much more impressive here. But then, to be fair, Bill Pullman's creation of The Goat role would have been impossible for anyone to top -being one of the best performances ever(hyperbole fully intended). But of course the marquee name here is the one and only Kathleen Turner.

For longtime readers of my site, my love for certain actresses is well known. Yet my devotion to Kathleen Turner may have slipped by unnoticed due to her rather abrupt descent from the movie star ranks. Those who first dropped jaw at this actress's debut in Lawrence Kasdan's early 80s noir effort Body Heat probably wouldn't have seen a fine grande dame stage career in her future.... but, in a way, Turner has been building up to Martha for years. From her memorably dangerous seduction of William Hurt in that film to her breakout star turn with Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone through her sometimes violent love/sex matches with Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor Steve Martin in The Man With Two BrainsTony Perkins in Crimes of Passion and within the divorce dramedies The War of the Roses and Peggy Sue Got Married nearly all of Turner's important characters have been women in the midst of extremely contentious and high stakes coupledom. Stepping into Martha's shoes, once inhabited by legends as large as Uta Hagen and Elizabeth Taylor is, to Turner's great credit, a completely unforced fit. Taylor's bray as Martha in the film version was a perfect match and won her the Oscar. Turner's famously husky voice and big throaty laugh spin just as naturally from and in service of one of the best written characters for stage or screen. She is Martha and will certainly be rewarded with one of this year's Tony nominations.

By the end of the play I had momentarily forgotten all about the film (which I love) so immersed was I in this new production. The finale is a marvel. In those superb last moments overflowing with repetitive "yes" and "no"s the consensual nature of George and Martha's emotional violence hits home. For these weary warriors, one realizes with a shudder, this night might be just like any other night. It's a dismaying thought. But for the audience, happily, this is not just any night at the theater. Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

I loved this production as well. The Tony belongs to either Turner or Natasha Richardson, who was an incredible Blanche DuBois in The ROundabout's "Streetcar".

Anonymous said...

Has "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf" been released on DVD over on your soil? I'm dying to see it but it hasn't been released here...



actually I think Cherry Jones is going to win the Tony for Doubt. She's great in it and Turner and Richardson may be battling for the same type of "famous role" votes.