'Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Annie McNamara and Vin Knight in 'Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf'
Not everyone.
6/30/2018

The experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service, famed for its marathon F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation 'Gatz,' delivers an antic satire of Edward Albee's modern classic.

The gags come flying fast and furious but few of them land in Elevator Repair Service's parody of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Lampooning the classic play in alternately sophomoric and highfalutin fashion, Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf barely sustains its comic energy through its brief, 75-minute running time. Despite impressively committed performances from the ensemble, the piece ultimately feels like a Carol Burnett sketch with intellectual pretensions.

ERS has previously explored the works of such writers as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby — every word of it — inspired the company's most heralded production, Gatz. The group recently received critical brickbats for its iconoclastic take on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and this latest work is not likely to rebuild their reputation. Both shows remind us, all too keenly, of how well-intentioned and potentially provocative experimentations can go awry onstage. 

Playwright Kate Scelsa, a longtime acting member of ERS, provides a decidedly feminist take on the material. In this version, it's not faculty wife Martha (Annie McNamara) who winds up emotionally devastated but rather her mid-level academic husband George (Vin Knight), who at this play's end literally goes to hell. The reversal is signaled from the very beginning, when it is George, not Martha, who utters the immortal line borrowed from Bette Davis: "What a dump!"

There are some amusing bits alluding to the original play's gay subtext, which Albee vehemently denied. At one point, George advises their guest Nick about his wife: "Keep it gay in here. She likes gay stuff." At another, Nick announces that he writes "slash fiction," which he explains is "fan fiction where you make everyone gay even if they're not."   

More often than not, however, the comic riffs seem random, such as Martha becoming apoplectic at the idea that Woody Allen was mentioned in her home. That's just one of many pop culture references in the evening, including nods to Will & Grace and the Twilight series, that don't pay off. Despite its title, the piece is as much a commentary on Tennessee Williams as Albee, with comic riffs on A Streetcar Named Desire figuring heavily in the antic proceedings.

Beyond this parody, Scelsa also peppers the script with failed attempts at graduate level-style commentary; at one point, Nick's wife Honey (April Matthis) laments the thought of "being stuck in this post-irony suburban nightmare."

More effective are some genuinely funny sight gags. The company's artistic director John Collins provides an expertly executed staging featuring such moments as Martha chewing on glass, George and Honey appearing in matching colorful muumuus and a large robot making its way across the stage. In one of the wittier moments, the set literally deconstructs as if to provide a visual correlative to the evening's intentions.

In the intermissionless show's "third act," we see George in purgatory, accompanied by a vampire (Lindsay Hockaday) who feeds on neuroses instead of blood. By the time George croons "The Second Time Around" just before arriving in hell, it's long become apparent that the satire has lost its way.

There's no faulting the ensemble, particularly Knight and McNamara, who tear into their leading roles with a ferocity that wouldn't be out of place in a straightforward rendition of Albee's play. But their efforts go for naught in this ill-conceived twist on a classic that already cleverly comments on itself.

Venue: Abrons Arts Center, New York
Cast: Vin Knight, Annie McNamara, Mike Iveson, April Matthis, Lindsay Hockaday
Playwright: Kate Scelsa
Director: John Collins
Set designer: Louisa Thompson
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Ryan Seelig
Sound designer: Ben Williams
Presented by Elevator Repair Service