Amy Morton, Tracy Letts, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?.
BOTTOM LINE: A stirring revival featuring stellar performances, particularly the impeccable Broadway debut of Carrie Coon.
The first question my friends and I pondered while exiting the Booth Theatre after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was: How do they do that? Day after day after day after day. How do those actors get on that stage to deliver such emotional and intense performances, sometimes twice a day? The discipline they must employ in order to keep their bodies and voices in tip-top shape is the most remarkable thing about this production.
Edward Albee’s Woolf originally premiered on Broadway in 1962 and this revival opened fifty years later to the date on October 13, 2012. The play -- which sees two couples booze and bitch throughout one epically long after-party -- shakes audience members with its vulgar, sometimes violent characters and its presentation of what must be the most twisted marriage ever. That it still packs such a punch today, that the 2PM audience sat for three hours with a giddy “should I laugh or gasp or close my eyes?” enthusiasm says it all: this is a classic.
Amy Morton and Tracy Letts (probably best known as the author of August: Osage County) are Martha and George, the couple hosting the younger Nick (Madison Dirk) and his brandy-swigging wife Honey (Carrie Coon). Nick is a biology teacher at the college in which Martha’s father is the president and George is a history professor.
As the booze flows, the audience (plus Nick and Honey) must endure a series of perverse games Martha and George play -- games like "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests." The fun occurs between verbal attacks and accusations that build and build and build until boom! goes George’s gun that shoots out an -- well, I won’t spoil what it shoots out, but it’s a moment that brings down the house.
Letts brings a quiet, edgy intensity to George that makes you want to see inside his head: what is this man thinking when his wife goes on and on and on, scathingly calling him a blank, a cipher and a zero in a matter of seconds. As Martha, Amy Morton is the perfect combination of insecurity and audacity. She wisely lets some of Albee’s caustic words hit George with a playful lightheartedness that drives the play’s opening moments. Martha’s literal collapse into sadness and fear is, in Morton’s hands, riveting.
Equally impressive are the show’s other two stars. Dirks’s Nick is the perfect counterpart to the overly aggressive George. He attempts to hold his own but eventually succumbs to joining George and Martha's maddening, booze-infused foolishness. And it’s Carrie Coon’s portrayal of Honey that, for my money, is one of the must-see performances of the season. Every line of dialogue she delivers is authentic and truthful (wait until she says “Well I ought to...... be.” It’s such a simple line but I about cried tears of laughter). When she’s not speaking, she’s still mesmerizing. It is increasingly pleasing to watch her Honey observe the other three, trying so hard to follow them as she hilariously sips more and more brandy.
Pam Mackinnon moves her actors about the perfectly designed living room set (by Todd Rosenthal) so naturally, you truly feel you’re in their home. Every little step says something about what’s happening internally with these four flawed individuals. There’s as much power in George attempting to strangle Martha as there is when Honey slowly places her drink down on the coffee table.
This production is quite the feat: both laugh-out-loud funny and painfully tragic. Mackinnon and the actors have brought Albee’s script back to Broadway in the honest, heartfelt capacity it deserves. Theatre lovers, don’t miss it.
(Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at The Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenues, through February 24, 2013. Performance schedule varies. Visit virginiawoolfbroadway.com for information. Tickets are $77-227 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)