Rarely have I been to a sold-out performance of a three-hour play where ticket-buyers, during intermission, laughed nervously about whether they had the fortitude to return. Mind you, I've been to three-hour shows where people fled during the break because the script or the performances were boring them silly or bugging them. That was not the case on a recent Saturday night at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary: One fellow, during the second of two intermissions that are provided for the Kitchen Dog Theater production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, took a deep breath and chugged two cups of wine in quick succession (I don't know how much he'd had during the first intermission). Whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon once wrote; you will likely take any precautions necessary to steel yourself for Kitchen Dog's harrowing, masterfully paced staging, orchestrated with perfect pitch by director Tim Johnson.
That you want to look away but are screwed tight into your seat by the delirious intelligence of Edward Albee's philosophical venom is surely the biggest tribute anyone can pay to one of America's two or three greatest living playwrights.
The immensity of the achievement of Johnson and his cast is difficult to exaggerate, considering that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? occupies a peculiar space in the American pop consciousness, a kind of crumbling mansion constructed with equal parts art and camp. Plays by Tennessee Williams and William Inge dwell there too, but Virginia Woolf is especially elusive because it's at once caricaturish and subtle, vulgar and erudite. I adore Mike Nichols' 1966 film version, which has gotten a bad rap in some circles because it's been consumed by the larger legend of Liz and Dick's marital saga (not to mention Dame Taylor's tardy recognition as gay icon by the Queen of England for her efforts against AIDS). Nichols' movie is more deft and nimble and cautious with the torrents of agonized emotion than anyone remembers, which is part of the point: People have ceased truly investigating the play in the name of referencing it, riffing on it, and lampooning it. (Shameful confession: I'm almost equally fond of the Benny Hill skit in which Hill plays George and Martha).
And so Kitchen Dog Theater has done far more than merely coast on a marquee name with its decision to revive this play. There is very little historical context required to understand how explosive Albee's drama was to theater audiences back in 1962, because right here, in the year 2000 and on the MAC stage, it shatters into brilliant diamond-sized pieces with the same force. In explaining the play's preoccupation with polarities--biology and history, past and future, truth and illusion--Albee has said that his show is, in part, about the failure of a supposedly progressive society to live up to its own progressive image. He also says that naming his middle-aged college-campus married couple "George" and "Martha" (as in "Washington") was "just an idea," one that shouldn't be over-examined for meaning. But one night at 2 a.m. after a faculty party, when George (Kieran Connolly) and Martha (Cindy Beall) lasso a younger husband and wife (Chris Carlos as Nick and Brandy McClendon as Honey) into a learned war of words where the mouths pause only long enough to swill more booze, you feel like you're watching a showdown between where we've come from and where we're going. And both mandate a shitload of deception to keep moving.
The role of Martha is, to say the least, tricky: The issue here isn't trying to avoid becoming a cartoon, but trying to locate the humanity in a role that has been conceived as cartoonish. Martha is supposed to bray some of her lines, to laugh too loud, to paw younger men, and to challenge her husband's masculinity with gleeful malice in front of the guests. How do you do all that and not let your actor's egotism take over? Cindy Beall redeems the excesses of her role with the quieter, more reflective moments, when Martha's smarts and her ruefulness rise gently to the surface. Kieran Connolly plays George less as emasculated than disappointed, an important distinction; if he is to be a worthy adversary, then her attempts at castration must be deflected at every turn. Connolly works his lines with whiz-bang comic timing, and as a result, emerges as far crueler than Martha could ever be. Brandy McClendon, the best of a glorious batch in Our Endeavors' Gorey Stories, again proves she can command audiences with the furrow of a brow or a line delivered with just the right lilt as Honey. I must say it was a bit of a shock at first to see Chris Carlos with blond hair (the script dictates this peroxide job), but he inverts his trademark romantic-comedy appeal into Nick's callow opportunism with ease.
The flawless cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? wear Albee's dialogue like a crown of thorns. You half believe that the fluid you see coursing down their faces at different moments in the evening is blood, not tears; they seem to be weeping from a deeper, more visceral source than tear ducts usually tap. "You can't quit now that you've got enough blood in your mouth!" George snarls at Martha before tearing another hunk out of her hide. It's a nod of appreciation to the Kitchen Dog quartet of performers that this production is so alive, it's likely to rekindle the same debate among contemporary audiences that lost Albee the Pulitzer back in 1962; namely, is all this sadism, however eloquently phrased, really worth it? I say yes, because there is so much truth displayed too--none of us will surrender our illusions without the kind of animalistic desperation that Edward Albee captures in his witty, poetic turns of phrase.
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