Taking No Prisoners in Boozy, Brutal Head Games
Tracy Letts in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
“George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.”
Those keening words may never have cut so deep or hurt so bad as they do in the shattering revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that opened on Saturday night at the Booth Theater, precisely50 years to the day after this landmark drama first exploded like a stealth bomb on Broadway, establishing Mr. Albee as the most important American playwright of his generation and setting a brave new standard for truth-telling — not to mention expletive-spewing — in the decorous world of the commercial theater.
But the soul ache this superlative staging leaves behind is accompanied by a feeling far more emotionally enriching: the exhilaration of a fresh encounter with a great work of theater revitalized anew. This Steppenwolf Theaterproduction, the first necessary ticket of the fall Broadway season, establishes beyond question that at the half-century mark, an age when many plays, not to mention many people, are showing signs of flab, Mr. Albee’s scalding drama of marital discord still retains the bantam energy and strong bite of its youth.
The revelation here is the performance of Tracy Letts,making an electrifying Broadway debut as an actor five years after winning a Tony Award and subsequently a Pulitzer Prize as a playwright, for “August: Osage County.” Under the tightrope-taut direction of Pam MacKinnon(“Clybourne Park,” Mr. Albee’s “Peter and Jerry”), Mr. Letts brings a coiled ferocity to George that all but reorders our responses to a play that many of us probably thought had by now vouchsafed all its surprises.
Stalking the stage like an animal ever on the verge of pouncing, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his cardigan — as if only vigilant restraint could keep him from pummeling everyone in his orbit — Mr. Letts’s George sets the production’s tone of incipient threat from the opening moments. Alternating simmering disquiet with bursts of spine-chilling viciousness, Mr. Letts’s shlumpy but somehow magnetic George keeps stoking the suspense, moment by moment, for three harrowing and yet highly entertaining hours.
Technically, it’s true, George has always been the master of ceremonies in the bruising games of Mr. Albee’s play, which depicts an endless night of boozy revels and bitchy acrimony taking place in the disorderly living room of a history professor and his wife, Martha, who have invited another, younger couple over to join in the blood sport. It is George who dispenses the copious amounts of liquor, George whose verbal wit most dazzles, George who brings the savage rites to a close.
But the loudmouthed, take-no-prisoners brutality of Martha usually dominates the proceedings, as she keeps the volume permanently cranked up in their battle of wits and wills. Here Martha is portrayed in an intriguing, effective lower key by Amy Morton (the Tony-nominated star of “August: Osage County”), who puts a subtle emphasis on the bruised woman inside the brawling monster. Ms. Morton has the husky, bourbon-flavored voice that many a Martha before her has used to incendiary effect — most recently the blistering Kathleen Turner in the 2005 Broadway revival — but she chooses to keep it modulated for long stretches of the evening, and the predatory leer in Martha’s icy eyes alternates with flickering hints of the terror and grief that will ultimately engulf her.