By Melissa Rose Bernardo
March 12, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
Michael Brosilow

It’s not a party until someone pukes, passes out, or puts the moves on someone else’s spouse. And George and Martha — arguably the most unhappily married couple in contemporary theater — throw a doozy of a party in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Example: One of their party games is called ”Hump the Hostess.”) Edward Albee’s 1962 scorcher is not easy to endure; three hours of watching two characters pile on the emotional abuse would drive anyone to drink. But as embodied by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s nail-biting revival — now playing through April 10 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage — George and Martha make for appallingly entertaining company.

Martha to George: ”I swear…if you existed I’d divorce you.” George to Martha: ”Just stay on your feet…. And try to keep your clothes on.” And that’s before their guests arrive. (Cue party game No. 2: ”Get the Guests.”) As Nick and Honey, the unsuspecting prey drawn into the lions’ den, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon play a mean second fiddle: He’s hunky and humorless; she’s slim-hipped, as per the script, and does a great drunk act. But any Virginia Woolf unquestionably rises and falls on its George and Martha. Letts may be better known as the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright of August: Osage County, but he’s been a Steppenwolf company member for nearly a decade and has shared the stage with Morton in Betrayal, Three Days of Rain, and Homebody/Kabul, to name a few. She also directed him in shows including The Pillowman and, more recently, American Buffalo. No wonder these two appear so connected. His George is no henpecked husband; Letts radiates a quiet intensity even when he’s on the receiving end of Martha’s vicious verbal blows. Anyone who saw August knows Morton can bray with the best of them, so she has no trouble tapping into Martha’s barking, bellowing, shrewish side. But she also unearths a rare vulnerability. Those moments are fleeting, and exist only between Martha and George, but she melts flawlessly into them.

Despite the histrionics, director Pam MacKinnon knows precisely when to dial things down. After a couple rounds of bourbon (on the rocks) and bile (straight up), George makes a wry observation: ”It isn’t the prettiest spectacle…seeing a couple of middle-aged types hacking away at each other.” Perhaps it’s not pretty. But Letts, Morton, and Co. have produced a thing of rare beauty. A

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