EmptyAhmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through March 18
What is it about Edward Albee and animals?
In "The Zoo Story," Albee turned the territorial imperative into a fight over a park bench, and the play's centerpiece was a long story about a crazed dog.
In "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" the playwright brought us a romantic triangle in which the other woman turned out to have four legs and a beard.
Needless to say, while there are no wolves in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" there is plenty of feral behavior onstage. Martha (Kathleen Turner) is nipping at George's (Bill Irwin) heels from the moment they walk in the door, after having attended a faculty party at the small New England college where George teaches history and Martha's father is president. Before long, she's ripping savagely into her hapless husband and drawing blood, much to the astonishment of the two guests, Nick and Honey (David Furr, Kathleen Early), who Martha has invited home. George, of course, fights back in his own way, a mixture of cunning and wit that might draw less blood but in the long run proves just as painful.
Martha, naturally enough, is usually played as a boozy bitch, and her tendency to "bray" is not only part of the text but a temptation that most actresses can't resist. Turner, who can bitch with the best of them -- her husky voice is made to order -- surprisingly plays against expectations and turns in a precisely nuanced, un-histrionic performance that resonates more truthfully as the evening progresses. Martha's laughter, for instance, is less scornful and demonic and more of a natural -- even innocent -- release of pent-up emotion by a woman wary of succumbing to her own worst nature. Speaking of laughter, there's even more than we remember, none of it directly solicited, which is the best kind.
Irwin's Tony-winning performance is a gem. The way he pads softly around the room, hips and stomach weakly thrust forward, he appears to be walking through pudding. Or is this simply the kind of quiet, civilized emasculation to which certain married professors who have failed to live up to their wives' expectations or their own are prone?
Furr is a fine Nick, the biology teacher who squares off against George's more humane historian. He doesn't overplay his arrogant, opportunistic side but lets it appear gradually as circumstances dictate. Early's Honey is a lamb being led to the slaughter in less than blissful ignorance. All in all, Anthony Page's carefully orchestrated direction has brought forth a beautifully acted production whose bite likely will stay with you long after the bark has fallen silent.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Presented by Center Theatre Group
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Anthony Page
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designers: Mark Bennett, Michael Creason
Martha: Kathleen Turner
George: Bill Irwin
Nick: David Furr
Honey: Kathleen Early