NEW YORK — Fifty years to the day since its original Broadway opening, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? returns as a blazing reaffirmation that this towering 1962 work is the mother of all great modern marital battlefield dramas. Transferring intact from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the sensational production is flawlessly cast and directed with unerring precision by Pam MacKinnon. But its major revelation is a thrilling performance from Tracy Letts that casts browbeaten academic mediocrity George in a scorching new light, making him at all times the most dangerous person in the room.
As a playwright, Letts is well known via the unsettling chillers Killer Joe and Bug (both of which he adapted for William Friedkin‘s film versions); the poignant old-neighborhood elegy Superior Donuts; and most of all, the ferocious disintegrating family saga August: Osage County. Letts also penned the screenplay for John Wells’ forthcoming film adaptation of that Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 2007 play, its starry cast headed by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Chicago theatergoers are accustomed to seeing Letts onstage, but his acting roles in New York have been limited to exactly one Off Broadway production. The stunning authority of his work here makes that seem inconceivable.
But the praise that will inevitably be showered on Letts should not overshadow the accomplishments of the entire four-person cast, or the undiminished power of Albee’s masterwork. Its bitter sting, startling wit and visceral pathos have faded not a bit in a half-century.
A study of wedded conflict and corrosive interdependency dappled with unexpected loyalty and tenderness, the play has many imitators but no equals. Its portrait of the incestuous cesspool of academic life is equally acute, as is its unflinching examination of the choice between living with deadening reality or consolatory illusion.
One aspect that emerges more incisively than ever in this revival is its sardonic take on cross-generational hostility. The gusto with which George and Martha tear the blinders of youthful arrogance, superiority and naivety from the eyes of their green young guests is as compelling a bloodsport as the vicious verbal blows they inflict upon each other.
When the production was announced for Broadway, it seemed worryingly soon after the lauded 2005 revival led by Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. But MacKinnon’s naturalistic staging, which runs three hours without a moment’s lull, wipes the floor with that earlier one because everything about it feels so vital. That applies even to the meticulous detailing of Todd Rosenthal’s set, the book-littered interior of a grand but veering-toward-shabby two-story New England college campus home.
The key dynamic of course is between the house’s occupants, George, an associate professor in the History Department, and his furiously frustrated wife Martha, daughter of the university president. In their gladiatorial love-hate contest, Letts is superbly matched by the wonderful Amy Morton, who placed her indelible stamp on the lead character written for her in August: Osage County. The two also have a history with Albee’s play dating back to a 2004 staging at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which Morton directed, with Letts as George.
Departing in subtle but significant ways from the blowzy fire-breathing ballbuster immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols’ enduring 1966 screen version, Morton’s Martha seems almost elegant upon first encounter, if no less ready with a withering put-down. Her undiluted venom, like her vulgarity, is on a time-release drip that allows a window to the character’s vulnerability and self-disgust, making her ultimate defeat shattering. While she’s sure that she wears the pants in the house, her biggest mistake is underestimating George’s quicksilver intelligence and ruthless survival instinct. Letts, for his part, makes those qualities evident from the start. This causes the audience to cower in horror from what’s to come as Martha intensifies her humiliation of her husband, refusing to be intimidated by his warnings.
The captive spectators for those “Fun and Games,” to borrow the play’s first-act title, are Nick (Madison Dirks), the new addition to the Biology Department, and his mousy wife Honey (Carrie Coon), invited back for late-night drinks by Martha after one of Daddy’s Saturday faculty soirees.
An understated embodiment of the mid-century ideal (the play is set in 1962) of confidently handsome masculinity and ambition, Dirks’ Nick represents everything that might be perceived as a threat to cardigan-clad, seemingly impotent George. Even his academic field, with its early steps into genetic modification, stands as a direct affront to history. But as cocky and dismissive as Dirks plays him, we still cringe for Nick as he lets down his guard. He starts sharing personal information that George archives away for later use as the liquor and bile keep flowing.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of George – as written by Albee, and more than ever, as played by Letts – is that not a single word, no matter how apparently innocuous, reaches his ears without being parsed. Likewise, nothing escapes his lips that’s not carefully measured for impact, even when his face reddens with rage at Martha’s goading.
Like a diabolical magician, Letts’ George is at his most lethal as he weaves what he’s learned of the younger couple’s relationship into the plot outline of a supposedly unpublished novel, effectively neutering Nick and leaving poor brandy-soaked Honey struggling to keep up. Until she gets it. That magnificent scene is the beginning of an expertly calibrated process by which Albee shows that the foundations of Nick and Honey’s marriage are far less secure than those of George and Martha’s unwholesome contract.
But George saves his most deadly attack for Martha, who violates the rules of their agreement, prompting him to publicly shatter the illusion she holds most sacred. Albee calls this final act “The Exorcism.” But as played here, it’s both a deliberate act of cruelty and a mercy killing, somehow allowing George and Martha to go on after both have been pushed beyond the limit. The glimmer of compassion is devastating.
Letts and Morton’s rapport onstage is invigoratingly alive and in-the-moment. It’s also savagely funny. Their George and Martha bristle not only with mutual hostility but with a shared sense of the blackest humor. There’s piercing sorrow beneath Morton’s words when Martha admits her need to punish George for loving her. And in Letts’ hands, the bottomless depths of George’s wiliness hint that his professional under-achievement may be due at least in part to a perverse desire to wound Martha by fueling her disappointment.
A dab hand with ample experience in the exacting language and rhythms of Albee’s plays, MacKinnon elicits bone-deep psychological and emotional characterizations from all four players, each of whom also brings a keen sense of the physical. The cast’s immersion is such that on opening night, when a prop lamp was accidentally knocked over and shattered during a tense exchange between George and Nick, neither actor missed a beat. Following her razor-sharp job on last season’s Tony winner Clybourne Park, this production catapults MacKinnon into the upper echelon of contemporary American stage directors.
Veterans of past productions may feel that Albee’s drama has yielded all that it has to offer. But this unmissable revival shows otherwise. And audiences coming fresh to the play couldn’t ask for a more exciting introduction.
Venue: Booth Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 24)
Cast: Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Playwright: Edward Albee
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Lighting designer: Allen Lee Hughes
Sound designer: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Susan Quint Gallin, Mary Lu Roffe, Kit Seidel, Amy Danis & Mark Johannes, Patty Baker, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Richard Gross, Jam Theatricals, Cheryl Lachowicz, Michael Palitz, Dramatic Forces/Angelina Fiordellisi, Luigi & Rose Caiola, Ken Greiner, Kathleen Johnson, Mirmser Ponturo Fund, Will Trice, GFour Productions