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Theater Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

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The first names in the mythology of American marriage are George and Martha. For the  country’s first 180 years they stood for the Father of Our Country and our first First Lady and reminded us that great lives are even greater when supported in wholesome matrimony. In October 1962, with the Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another set of George and Marthas — the Washingtons’ bi-polar opposites — clawed their way to the top tier of marriage folklore and claimed their place as the first family of Marital Strife.

In November 2005, under the direction of Anthony Page, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner became Broadway’s latest George and Martha. A Ben Brantley benediction opened a box office flood that carried the cast to London in 2006 and then earlier this month into Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre. It arrives here amid much fanfare and trailing awards from those previous stops: a Tony Award for Mr. Irwin, a London Critics Circle Award for Ms. Turner, and Brantley’s New York Times declaration that Ms. Turner, “a movie star whose previous theater work has been  variable, finally secures her berth as a first-rate, depth-probing stage actress.”

It is now 45 years since the play’s controversial debut, when it earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama only to have the committee’s more powerful and less courageous members suspend the award that year because of the play’s language. Today, neither the language nor the vituperative husband and wife battles will ruffle audiences used to profanity-spewing, chair-throwing guests common to viewers of Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, and the like.  

Still, Albee’s script leaves a sting. He had much more in mind than the shouting, and while we certainly leave the Ahmanson with an appreciation for the insight he has buried beneath the belligerence, there’s a lingering sense that we are not seeing the definitive Martha. In Turner’s interpretation, she seems particularly saddled with the requirement that she be dominant in every scrap of dialogue. The obvious exception, her Act III opening soliloquy, may be all Albee meant to allow her for significant nuance, but one wishes to somehow catch more of the complexity within this historic character.  

For whatever reason, the sameness of the dynamics in her exchanges, with volume being the primary modulator, grows tiresome over the three hours. Her two-character scenes with George, which one expects to sound routine after their years of marriage, feel like dead ends. For his part, Irwin fares better, able to create noticeable topography as he maneuvers his underdog George around his sniping wife. There is more a sense that he finds the sport in locking horns with the bullying Martha. There's a noticeable rise in his energy level when Nick and Honey arrive, as if stoked by the fuel of two pieces of green firewood.

George is a history professor at an East Coast university where Martha’s father is president. Martha spends her days at home, nurturing resentments at having proved a non-starter, and swallowing her pride on shots from the rolling stock of liquor bottles. Albee knows that Martha’s biggest problem with men is not George but Daddy. If anybody stunted her it was he. Martha, however, does not know this and that is what makes these torturous hours intriguing. Rather than confront her own father, of whom she is trapped in childlike adoration, she goes after her accommodating husband. 

When the play begins, George and Martha are stumbling into the comfortable living room (designed with loving detail by John Lee Beatty) after a dinner party for faculty at the home of Martha’s father. Following another long day of gnawing at each other and a night of heavy drinking, George is ready to retire. But, at her father’s request, Martha has invited another couple from the party to stop by. Kathleen Early is Honey and David Furr is Nick, new to the production for L.A. Despite a voice that sounds unnatural (which may be Page’s fault given the "overshrill" complaint from Brantley about an earlier actress), Early’s Honey feels appropriately clueless. We can see the beginnings of another serious stay-at-home alcoholic in her Honey. Furr has a bigger challenge, having to make Nick – even after hours of drinking at Martha’s father’s house – begin the play as an uptight and self-righteous man who will within hours reveal secrets about his relationship with Honey and then have sex with the arguably influential but hardly appealing Martha. It’s a tough row to hoe.

Martha’s castrating contempt for all men is the result of her unaddressed anger toward her father. She berates George for being a failure compared to the old man, hoping he’ll take the bait and channel her loathing as proxy.

As the play’s title indicates, however, she is completely oblivious to these subconscious impulses.  Martha spontaneously comes up with the parody of the Disney tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” during the dinner party at the home of her father – her Big Bad Wolf. Her frightened subconscious carefully changes the words to be about Virginia Woolf, which signals instead that Martha is educated while it invokes the aura of a brilliant, suicidal woman. It nevertheless remains the taunting of an immature schoolgirl.  
Martha’s most telling act of passive-aggression towards her father, however, is that she has brought Nick and Honey home as a favor to her father, who wants them to feel more welcome in town. And then she proceeds to do everything she can to destroy them.

CREDITS: by Edward Albee, directed by Anthony Page WITH Kathleen Early, David Furr, Bill Irwin, Kathleen Turner PRODUCTION John Lee Beatty, set; Jane Greenwood, costumes; Peter Kaczorowski, lights; Mark Bennett/Michael Creason, sound; Rick Sordelet, fight direction; Susie Cordon, stage management.

Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, February 6-March 18, 2007.

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