Kathleen Turner stirred up quite a you-know-what storm when she candidly shared her thoughts about the state of L.A. theater shortly before arriving in town with a touring revival of Edward Albee’s classic drama. ”I’ve never really seen an extraordinary piece of theater in my time there,” she told the L.A. Times. ”I’m hoping they’ll see the quality of what theater can and should be and perhaps invest more in creating good theater in Los Angeles.” Never mind that she added the caveat about how she’s never actually had much time to visit legit productions on the West Coast; hearing this old trope about local inadequacy, the local theater community was all but ready to run the former Body Heat sexpot out of town on a rail.
Only one problem with that: This really is a show-’em-how-it’s-done-level production, with performances by Turner and Bill Irwin that just about spoil you for anybody else’s, be they in Hollywood, New York, London, or the celestial sphere. And if a little bit of visiting-royalty pride is the price we Angelenos have to pay for this honestly unforgettable evening, all I can say is: Bring on the hubris. The two principals have been honing this act since the 2005 Broadway production, with a stopover in Britain on the way to a tour of major American cities, and their comic timing is sharp enough that you’d think they truly must have been doing this anti-mating dance as long as Albee’s protractedly wed George and Martha themselves. Did we say comic? Of course; in these hands, at least, Woolf is as hysterically funny a play as you’ll ever hope to see, even if the simultaneous effect is to evoke a mutual hatred rarely experienced this side of a Sunni/Shi’ite summit.
You may know the drill, from the ’66 Liz Taylor-Richard Burton-Mike Nichols movie, if nowhere else: A middle-aged professor and his wife invite a young new colleague and his spouse over for drinks — whiskey and venom — at about 2 a.m., resulting in war games that proceed until dawn in something very like real time. Only toward the very end of the third act does the play lose just a little of its grip, and then, only because the actors have so convinced us that they’re in tune with bitter reality that Albee’s climactic reveal about their self-delusions can’t quite ring true. But even if a bit of air goes out in the final minutes, it’s still a magnificently bumpy night. As the emasculating blowhard of a faculty wife, Turner nails how disappointed rage and bawdy sexual voraciousness might be two sides of the same coin. But Tony winner Irwin is even more of a revelation, not for playing against his own type, à la Turner, but against any Burton-type conception of the cuckolded husband as a blustery, equal-opportunity rager. Physically, he stoops and already seems defeated, almost seeming to have to swallow air to get his insults out in halting bursts. It’s only well into the first act that you really believe he’ll be able to hold his own in this ugly marital parrying — and when you realize just how sadly but slyly up to the task his battle-ready character is, you’ll wish the three hours of theater ahead of you were more like five. A (At L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre through March 18; tickets: Center Theatre Group. At Chicago’s LaSalle Bank Theater March 27-May 4; tickets: ticketmaster.com)