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Theater Review: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

If an actor hasn’t been in a movie lately, some people think the actor is washed up, forgetting that before TV and before moving pictures, actors didn’t get re-shoots or second takes. It was live and on stage before critics of the ordinary sort.

The Center Theatre Group presents an acclaimed production that won awards in both NYC and London, showing us actors at their immediate best, while showing a marriage at its worst. Currently, at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, Kathleen Turner rages in a lusty portrayal of an angry, disappointed, middle-aged wife in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Turner hasn’t been in a major movie lately, unlike her partner in crime, Michael Douglas, who starred with her in the romantic comedy series, the 1984 Romancing the Stone and the 1985 Jewel of the Nile and the last pairing, the 1989 The War of the Roses. She has, of course, shown up on TV in the wildly popular series Friends as Charles Bing, the transsexual father of Chandler, and more recently on Nip/Tuck in 2006.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t been acting and to some acclaim. In 2005, she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in this role. Bill Irwin, who plays husband George to her Martha, won a Tony Award. In London, the production garnered Turner an Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards and a nomination for an Olivier. In 1989, she had a Tony nomination for her role as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

As Martha, Turner’s gravely voice isn’t sexy as it was for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but rather angry and forceful. It’s a voice of a woman who’s had one too many, too many times and particularly tonight. Her comfortable heftiness also emphasizes her physical dominance over the slighter Irwin. At first, Albee’s construct elicits sympathy for the milquetoast husband, George, and the couple, Honey (Kathleen Early) and Nick (David Furr), who unwittingly become guests and a captive audience of the mean drunk that Martha quickly becomes.

Honey, whom Early plays with an annoyingly sweet accent, and her husband, the sexy young Nick, seem to be a sweet, naïve couple, yet as the drinks begin to flow, so does the civility. The small pool of academia in a small town is filled with sharks and piranhas. Irwin’s George seems a man outclassed both physically and emotionally at first, even as we learn that Nick’s plan for academic advancement includes “plowing” a few faculty wives, with Martha being a willing, obvious first choice.

Under the direction of Anthony Page, using the revised 2004 version, there is wit and moments of tenderness in this harrowing journey into the ugliness of marriage and drunken revelations. None of the foursome dominates in this well-tuned ensemble. This pessimistic study of two marriages is hardly the kind of thing you’d think of in this romantic month, but Irwin and Turner are well worth the ticket price and the three-plus hours (with two 10-minute intermissions).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will run at the Ahmanson until 18 March.

Mike Nichols directed the 1966 movie production, starring Richard Burton and his then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor, along with Sandy Dennis and George Segal. All five received Oscar nominations with Taylor and Dennis taking home the statuette. Maybe it’s time for a remake.

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  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I saw this a number of years ago in LA with John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson in the leads, and think I might have to venture out again.

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    I didn’t get the chance to see that combination although I like both actors. Obviously the physical dynamics were different and I would guess the psychological ones would have to be as well.

  • Student

    I have recently seen this play in Australia and must say, it explores so many issues and themes that are the core to human emotions. It is a outstanding play that will last through the ages.