note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
You could say I've had a revelation: not only did I see a damn fine production of Edward Albee's still-explosive WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Ubiquity Stage, but with this production – the third Ubiquity one I've seen – this little company has taken giant steps towards becoming one to be reckoned with, offering a solid acting ensemble, inventive direction, and a set that gave enough of an impression of being a real interior. Unfortunately, through various mishaps, the production received scant advertising and garnered no reviews save this obituary, which is what it will be by the time you read it, for the WOOLF is no longer at the door. "Sad, sad, sad" – for Ubiquity, and for you.
The setting is the living room of George and Martha's house on the campus of a small New England college. George (age 46) is a history professor; his wife, Martha (age 52), is the college president's daughter. Martha is loud-mouthed, alcoholic and frustrated; she constantly berates George for having had neither the guts nor ambition to succeed her father. George endures Martha's abuse, though he often gives as good as gets (he thrusts and parries where Martha bludgeons). And then there's their son…. On this particular evening, George and Martha return home from a faculty party (where the play's title was sung to the tune of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"). Martha, already tanked, announces that a young professor and his wife, new to the college, are stopping by for a nightcap. George protests; Martha insists. Enter Nick and Honey, to all appearances the picture-perfect young couple; but, ah, underneath…. What begins as a nightcap turns into the now-famous Evening of Games: "Humiliate the Host", "Get the Guests", "Hump the Hostess", and "Bringing Up Baby". By play's end, all of the characters' falsehoods, lies and pretensions have been summoned up, shattered and swept away, leaving George and Martha clinging to each other amidst the dawn and the rubble.
It is hard to believe that Mr. Albee's dance-to-the-near-death turns 40 years old this year, for his dialogue still packs a wallop. WOOLF has gone through several sea changes since it first appeared in 1962: its frankness and brutality shocked many way back when (it was refused a Pulitzer Prize on moral grounds); then it was seen as an allegory of all that was rotten with America, with George and Martha [Washington] as the besotted parents of our country; then Mr. Albee was "outted" for a while and George and Martha were pointed at as two male lovers in disguise (and Martha as a sign of Mr. Albee's misogyny); happily, (hopefully,) WOOLF now seems to have settled into the niche where it belongs: a powerful, well-crafted study of a love-hate relationship. The Reality Factor cries out now and then (for example, Nick and Honey would have made tracks after having one drink), but Reality goes off to hang itself once the Games begin and all Hell breaks loose.
How to present WOOLF to today's audiences? In the Cold War/Kennedy era, with the counterculture right around the corner? Or in today's times, with George and Martha as two flower children now gone to seed? Director Rich Girardi chose to keep his production "timeless" ("in" joke: the house number on the front door was "62"). Costumes, sets and décor betrayed no particular era, and it worked beautifully. Though he is still a relatively young director (in both age and experience), Mr. Girardi showed an amazing growth since last year's KING LEAR (not a play to be sneezed at, either) – here, he leapt on the tiger's back and managed to stay on. In what is basically a 3-˝ hour sit-down play, Mr. Girardi kept the action flowing seamlessly throughout Mr. Albee's solos, duets and ensembles – and (as in his LEAR) he brought out much of WOOLF's black humor, both sparkling and mordant, that streak through the play like claw marks. (The audience I sat with tended to giggle cautiously, as if they weren't sure they were supposed to; yes, folks, you're SUPPOSED to laugh – George and Martha relish their battles as much as hate them.)
(A magical little touch: when George yelled upstairs to Martha, and Martha yelled back, her "George?" not only sounded distant enough, but UPSTAIRS distant enough, and I shivered with delight: for a moment, that low-budget set became a living, breathing HOUSE….)
The traditional George-Martha casting is for a slight, henpecked man and a big, dominating woman; going against the grain, Mr. Girardi cast a tall, hefty actor (Eddie Pearson) and a slight, thin actress (Elaine Kerry) in the roles – a clawing, spitting cat, and a bear that knows just when to SWOT 'er down. Mr. Pearson and Ms. Kerry may not have been convincing as a married couple of 23 years (Ms. Kerry was a bit short in the tooth, so to speak), and their levels of drunkenness came and went, but, again, I say: Reality, go hang thyself. On the night I attended, Ms. Kerry started on too high a note (Mr. Albee has Martha enter in full decibel) and thus played in the upper half of her lungs for much of Act One. Luckily, Martha comes and goes, giving her actress an offstage breather, and Ms. Kerry soon settled down to start coloring and shading her lines, pulling endless reserves of venom and volume out of her slight frame. (What a hatchet, if not a battle axe!) Beautiful to watch, too, was Ms. Kerry's face when it relaxed in her Act Three arias of Father, Husband and Son – and who says Mr. Albee lacks compassion? Mr. Pearson, on the other hand, started on too low a note and, to be honest, I didn't think he could pull off the complex role of George, but, by God, he did, showing a cunning mind behind the cuddly exterior, along with an emcee/professor's delight in wordplay – and, most important of all, showing his LOVE for Martha despite his torment (he's living with a chronic alcoholic) and that his "Bringing Up Baby", though cruel, is a badly-need slap in Martha's face in order for them to face the rest of their lives together.
Nick and Honey may come off as rather colorless on the page, but they were nicely realized by Gideon Banner and Tara Donoghue – Mr. Banner, cool and calculating; and Ms. Donoghue – not at all fragile as constantly described – silly and giddy, but (again), ah, underneath…. And Mr. Banner and Ms. Donoghue gave us a beautiful acting lesson so subtle that many an audience member may not have noticed (and done so convincingly that it did not draw attention to itself) – their own step-by-step drunkenness as they first sit and watch their gladiator hosts and then enter the arena themselves (what a signpost Nick taking off his jacket and loosening his tie became!).
The Ubiquity has been in existence for only three years, but with this satisfying WOOLF (now, forever gone), it can start to lay serious claim to becoming a major force in the Boston theatre scene and I eagerly look forward to its next two productions, THE FANTASTICKS and a Halloween production of TITUS ANDRONICUS. If this sounds like a plug for Mr. Girardi and his company, so be it – you cannot start banging the drum for them too early. BOOM! BOOM!