Playing Rough

Reality TV has left little to fear about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee's once-shocking and still unsettling 1962 drama. The play is now getting a strongly acted, if technically uneven, production directed by René Moreno at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. Imagine three and a half hours of out-of-control Real World episodes, but with old, flabby roommates and way wittier dialogue.

We've grown accustomed to the "unscripted" horror of real-life friends and relations mistreating each other for public consumption, going back to the contentious Louds of PBS' groundbreaking documentary An American Family in 1973. So Albee's exquisitely written set-up seems less absurd than it once might have to a theater audience: Two inebriated couples go at it hammer and ice-tongs in a late-night after-party that starts out full of nasty humor but turns uglier by the hour. There's shouting and screwing and, at the end, secrets are spilled that rip relationships to shreds.

To think that Woolf once was considered too taboo for public performance, so controversial that Columbia University denied Albee a Pulitzer for the play, despite its being the judging panel's top choice that year. It wasn't just the script's profanity, which now seems rather quaint in its measured use of four-letterisms, but the balls-out bad behavior of the characters that put off the Kennedy-era literati. They don't simply get drunk, the four people in Woolf, they get mean-crazy-grabass drunk. On Broadway in the same season the musical Oliver! debuted, that was a scandal.

This epic-length masterpiece still upsets notions of how civilized people are supposed to act. George and Martha, hosts of the impromptu 2 a.m. wingding in their book-lined living room, are New England aesthetes on the saggy side of middle age. He's a college history professor—still an associate prof after 20 years, which signals a certain lack of ambition—and he's six years younger than his wife. She's the bored and bossy daughter of the college's longtime president. "Martha's father has the staying power of one of those Micronesian tortoises," George harrumphs.

The couple's marriage isn't just on the rocks; it has plummeted to the floor of the Slough of Despond, sending up sulfuric bubbles now and then from the spouses' seismic shifts of emotion. "I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you," says Martha.

Caught in one of those bubbles on the Saturday night from hell are Nick and Honey, newlyweds who've unwisely accepted Martha's invitation to follow her and George home from a faculty party. They come in for a nightcap and stay till dawn. Before the young folk arrive, however, we're allowed a glimpse at just what a sticky mess they'll be stepping into.

Albee subtitles the first act of Woolf "Fun and Games." For a while, it is. George and Martha, played at WaterTower by veteran Dallas actors James Crawford and Kristina Baker, stumble in from the other party in rare form. She's calling him a "cluck" and insulting his manhood. "You're going bald," she says. "So are you," he hisses back. They're the Bickering Bickersons à la Strindberg.

Liquor flows and arguments escalate. Then, ding-dong! In come semi-studly Nick (Ashley Wood), a just-hired biology professor, and his dingy wife Honey (Elise Reynard), a girl who can't hold her drinks or her end of a conversation. In Act 2, called "Walpurgisnacht," there's a witchy game of "Hump the Hostess" that Martha initiates with the younger man while Honey hugs the bathroom floor and George lurks in the corner, preparing to unleash 23 years of built-up anger onto his blowzy wife. Act 3, "The Exorcism" (Albee's original name for the play), finds the foursome breaking down to rawest emotions. When Martha blurts out the truth to the guests about her and George's "golden boy" son, who is turning 21, all the games suddenly are over. We're left to wonder if George and Martha are too.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is difficult and wonderful to watch. Albee is the genius of verbal volleys, but his characters are monsters. George thinks it's a gas to point a rifle at Martha's head. She's so awful she admits "I disgust me!" Throughout the play, we wonder why Nick and Honey, who seem decent enough, don't escape. But maybe we stay because they stay. Something draws us and them to stick around to see what will happen between George the stiff and Martha the slut.

Hideous though they are, these characters speak a cynical truth—as Albee wanted it said in 1962—about the big lie underneath the American idea of marriage, career and children adding up to happiness and security. Albee set the play on the edges of academia for a reason. He named them George and Martha for a reason (the obvious one). He even named Nick after Nikita Khrushchev, the Dr. Evil of Cold War politics at the time. And the stuff about the "blond-eyed, blue-haired son" is the first hint of Albee's ongoing obsession with writing about his own adoption by wealthy, conservative New Englanders whom he grew to despise. Many of his plays after Woolf, which was his first full-length drama, have dealt with the theme of "invisible" children.

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.

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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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner