Playing Rough

Party games push the fear factor in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

All of this helps explain why so many theaters are afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's hard to cast, a nightmare to rehearse (all that shrieking!) and a tough sell to theatergoers who'd rather see something full of pretty girls and showtunes. First smart move by WaterTower was hiring Moreno to direct. He's an expert with difficult dramas, careful to vary the tempo of long scenes the way a great conductor handles Bruckner or Mahler.

In actor James Crawford, Moreno has found a finely tuned instrument to work with. The role of George fits perfectly on Crawford, an SMU drama professor. He lets his face go as soft as a boiled potato when Kristina Baker's Martha is braying at him. Then, before delivering a precisely pronounced response, the actor slowly tenses every muscle, from his toes to his forehead. He's venomous, saying through his teeth "Where's my little yum-yum? Where's Martha?" It's sad and amusing that when George turns violent toward Nick it's by assaulting him with a handful of snapdragons. Crawford makes George a man you pity and fear.

If it were a prizefight, Crawford would win on points over Baker, whose Martha starts at such a high pitch she's left with nowhere to go in the second act. She's also physically slight for a role that calls for the bumptious hippiness Elizabeth Taylor achieved by gaining 20 pounds for the 1966 Mike Nichols film version. Only in the third act does Baker seem to connect with Martha's real source of pain and find subtle ways to express it.

Clockwise from top left: Ashley Wood plays semi-studly Nick; Elise Reynard is his dingy wife; Jim Crawford is George the stiff; Kristina Baker is his wife, Martha the slut.
Mark Oristano
Clockwise from top left: Ashley Wood plays semi-studly Nick; Elise Reynard is his dingy wife; Jim Crawford is George the stiff; Kristina Baker is his wife, Martha the slut.

Details

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through June 17 at WaterTower Theatre, Addison, 972-450-6232

As Nick and Honey, Wood and Reynard have moments where they catch fire. But too often they're left simmering on the sofa while George and Martha stalk each other around the stage. Wood gets believably turned on by Martha's flirty groping, but he looks so awkward swimming around in the ill-fitting orangey-brown wool suit provided by costumer Michael A. Robinson that any sex appeal is lost in pleats, wrinkles and too-long sleeves.

Robinson, with a well-deserved rep as the worst costumer in Dallas theater, works against Albee's descriptions of the characters. "Slim-hipped" Honey is jammed into a green brocade sheath that makes Reynard's hips look a yard wide. Nick's suit sports a visible six-inch hem job. Why not just tailor the pants properly? Martha's loungewear of black slacks and sweater, meant to emphasize bountiful cleavage and camouflage middle-aged spread, does just the opposite. Her slacks bag in the seat and the top is rimmed with mangy-looking monkey fur. Only George escapes the island of bad costumes, but why does he change his vest at 4 in the morning to go outside for flower picking?

There's also no explaining the third-act changes in the set. Until then, it's a high-ceilinged living room with front door and staircase upstage. Then for the last act, walls break away, floor boards open up. Those are unnecessary, distracting tricks by scenic designer Michael Sullivan. In Edward Albee's finest play, realism should rule, no special effects required. The words are shattering enough.

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