When Edward Albee visited La Jolla on the April leg of a book tour, he told us that a lot of plays get done over and over again 'because they get done over and over again.'He was talking about his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which since its 1962 Broadway opening has seen two New York revivals, had spawned a major movie and has been mounted in more than 30 countries. Heck, it's even been spoofed on American Dad, Fox-TV's animated series. And if that isn't proof of its wholesale durability, whaddya suppose is?
Albee was making a well-taken point-that he wants us to judge Virginia Woolf on its intrinsic merits rather than on its place in the public mind. On that score, he can't find an argument in The Old Globe Theatre's current turn at the text. This one's as honest and as balanced and as unadorned as they come, showing not a trace of the laurels on which it could easily rest. Director Richard Seer has pulled off an object lesson in character refinement, and Albee's scathing dialogue takes it from there. This show wasn't for the faint of heart in 1962 (in fact, its so-called objectionable themes cost it the Pulitzer it had rightfully won), and amid the declining institutional perceptions of marriage, it may be even less so today.
Laconic New England college history professor George and his boozy fishwife Martha are living a plane crash of a marriage, and they know it. They're so irredeemable as man and wife that they've concocted a series of games to drive the illusion behind their partnership. They're about to play out their little scenarios for Nick and Honey, an enterprising young biology teacher and his mousy spouse, who've dropped in for a nightcap after a faculty party. Three hours later, George is the last man standing-but the early morning's viciousness has opened gaping wounds within all four, and the lies on which they base their lives have exacted an unremitting toll.
George and Martha's fantasies revolve around an imaginary son and the ironclad proviso that he never be mentioned in the household. Once that rule is broken, everything else-George's meager salary, Martha's carnality, Nick's volatility, Honey's hysterical pregnancy-becomes a metaphor for the sham of an institution the older couple represents. If Seer's direction is too strident, that global quality gets buried in situational drama; too loose a hand, and he risks losing the situations inside stage technique. He's struck a terrific balance between the two-the result isn't so much a play as an indictment of marital cowardice and the failed society that breeds it.
Watch everybody's eyes, too-it's almost as though Seer has cast the show with them in mind. George (James Sutorius) sports a crook at his brow that chillingly imposes anger on top of disingenuousness; Nick (Scott Ferrara) clearly sees his life with Honey (Nisi Sturgis) through an unrelenting deer-in-the-headlights gape. Honey's dizzy gaze betrays an inner delicacy she scratches and claws to preserve; and Martha's (Monique Fowler) innately suspicious nature fuels a beady, deep-set glower. Those trappings are as telling as the tech work, with Paul Peterson's crafty sound design leading the way. This show is as unpretentious as its characters would like to be-as such, it's an excellent example of theater as a statement on everything that's larger than ourselves, let alone our institutions. Very, very good.
This review is based on the matinée performance of May 26. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf runs through June 24 at The Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage. $39-$58. 619-23-GLOBE.
The Globe's production of Virginia Woolf comes on the heels of good news from a definitive source. Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien, who recently pulled down his third Tony Award nomination in five seasons and his seventh overall, hints that quality like this is the norm outside New York-not at all like in 1977, when he found out about his first nod only when somebody from the office came in and told him.
Since then, he said in an interview with Tonyawards.com, 'there's been a wonderful kinship that's opened between the regionals [like the Globe] and Broadway. We're no longer identified as the boonies but are a partner with the whole American theater movement. A lot of the work that's on Broadway now... has been generated in these regional markets that are as sophisticated as anything you're going to find anywhere. I'm incredibly proud of that.'
O'Brien, 67, won Best Director for his work on Hairspray in 2003 and for a revival of Shakespeare's Henry IV the next year. This time, he's up for The Coast of Utopia, Sir Tom Stoppard's trilogy about epic political and philosophical debate in roily 19th-century Russia. The 61st annual Tony Awards will be televised Sunday, June 10, at 8 p.m. on CBS affiliate KFMB.