Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Carl A. Rossi


by Edward Albee
directed by Diego Arciniegas

George ... Nigel Gore
Martha ... Tina Packer
Nick ... Kevin Kaine
Honey ... Angie Jepson

Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is nearly 50 years old, now; a controversial groundbreaker in its day (it was denied a Pulitzer Prize on moral grounds), it remains a powerful, well-crafted study of a love-hate relationship. 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 offstage 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 couple; but, ah, underneath.... What begins as a nightcap turns into an 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. The Reality Factor cries out now and then (for example, Nick and Honey would have made tracks after having one drink), but hang Reality once those Games begin!

Judging by Honey’s hairdo and dress in Publick Theater Boston’s production, director Diego Arciniegas has set his WOOLF in the Cold War/Kennedy era --- always a wise choice, not only because Mr. Albee wrote his play in an era when Middle America got drunk rather than stoned, but because Philip Wylie housewives like Martha are part of the grey-flannel past. That said, someone --- the playwright, the director, or elves in the night --- has cut crucial passages, presumably, for a shorter running time. Gone are George and Martha’s terse discussion of their son, seconds before Nick and Honey’s entrance (Act One); Martha’s capper about George’s failed novel (which makes hubby go for her throat), and the ENTIRE George-Honey scene where the former plots against his son while the latter listens in drunken horror (Act Two); Martha’s moving line, “You think a man’s got his back broken ‘cause he makes like a clown and walks bent, hunh?” which shows how well she knows and loves the man she torments (Act Three). All gone --- to save, perhaps, seven minutes’ playing-time. Then there is the evening’s tone: Mr. Albee’s sardonic humor takes no prisoners; Mr. Arciniegas, however, opts for sitcom in Act One which weakens Act Two’s warfare: now we must take these clowns seriously, without preparation. Act Three, though, is magnificent --- magnificent! --- and well worth the wait.

With further tuning, Mr. Arciniegas’ ensemble could become a grand one. Right now, Angie Jepson punches up the supporting role of Honey to match Martha in significance: when George pulls a rifle on Martha, Ms. Jepson not only screams but leaps behind a chair to hide; when George utters the word “scrotum”, Ms. Jepson bursts into laughter worthy of a breakdown; when Ms. Jepson does her solo dance in Act Two, she is a clunky embarrassment. Years ago, I saw another stage-Honey who knew her place and slowly, quietly, dimmed her lights until she became a sodden sleepwalker, dance included --- and she made her impact: an innocent among three warriors. (Though still potent, VIRGINIA WOOLF has become a period piece, and Honey’s interpreters must evoke the body rhythms of a Cold War housewife --- remember housewives?) Kevin Kaine is quite good as Nick: the character’s cold ambition is filtered through Mr. Kaine’s smooth, smooth demeanor without the latter switching from Jekyll to Hyde to carry it through; even at his most explosive, Mr. Kaine retains his decorum (while some Nicks will remove their jackets at the beginning of Act Two, Mr. Kaine removes his, much later, to properly mount Martha on her couch). Indeed, the high points of Acts One and Two are the sparring matches between Mr. Kaine and Nigel Gore’s George: their low-key banter becomes pure vaudeville --- and let it not be forgotten that Mr. Albee was originally linked with the Theatre of the Absurd, back then…).

Twice have I seen Mr. Gore on a stage --- his is an intriguing presence: a graven image that swings between mock playfulness and real menace --- all the more amazing for an actor who keeps his fires heavily banked; indeed, his George is deftly rattled off at breakneck speed but with little substance to back it up --- the character may not be “there” in Martha’s eyes, but the actor must. Any George (the Provoked) is only as good as his Martha (the Provoker), and here Mr. Gore is paired for the third time with Tina Packer, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company. By the time you see this production --- and you should --- Ms. Packer may have fleshed out her Martha in Acts One and Two; right now, she daintily wanders through as our Hostess, grinning like the traditional Comedy Mask, and is agreeable to the point of self-effacement, whereas a correct Martha would be chewing up the scenery as well as the others. (Ms. Packer is also at an age where her leopard-skin blouse and black leotards might make you wince, and any roughhouse involving her has been carefully staged.) Then, in Act Three, Ms. Packer is transformed: if nothing else, her Shakespearean background has taught her how to take the stage and how to declaim, and she delivers Martha’s set-pieces with a clean, burning vulnerability that might make you weep, and the Messrs. Gore and Kaine and Ms. Jepson snap to as her supporting cast; at the eleven o’clock hour, they become a true ensemble, with Ms. Packer leading them home in partial triumph; the final duet between George and Martha is Pinter-perfect. Better late than never, what?

Kenneth Helvig’s lighting goes Expressionistic at unexpected moments when it should be set on a timer: that closing tableau must have the stage filling with the pale sun of a new day rather than growing darker and darker. More puzzling is Dahlia Al-Habieli’s sleek, streamlined set design: a vast, spotless art gallery rather than Martha’s “dump” (the front door landing becomes an obvious thrust-stage). And…the two pieces of furniture face upstage. Yes: UPSTAGE. For Act One, I sat behind the couch, observing the backs of heads. During intermission, I moved to another side of the house where I could SEE what I was reviewing --- an entirely different production! In Act One, George warns Nick that musical beds are common among the faculty; if the Publick's production continues to have non-packed houses, musical chairs may be common among its audiences…

"Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1 - 24 October)
@ Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON , MA
1 (617) 933-8600

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide