Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Geffen is a riveting portrait of toxic domestic bliss
Since its debut on Broadway in 1962, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has become a litmus test for actors — a domestic dramedy that asks the utmost of its quartet, including the challenge of overcoming the looming shadow of its cinematic rendering, starring one of Hollywood's most infamous couples, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Luckily, the four actors anchoring Gordon Greenberg's new staging at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse are more than up to the task.
Albee's play is a familiar dance. History professor George (Zachary Quinto) and his wife, Martha (Calista Flockhart), invite new faculty member Nick (Graham Phillips) and his meek wife, known only as Honey (Aimee Carrerro), over for a drink in the wee hours of the morning. But what George and Martha have in mind is actually a twisted night of fun and games, in which the two push each other — and Nick and Honey — to their breaking point.
There's many ways to interpret George and Martha's toxic dance, but Quinto and Flockhart aim for perhaps the most compelling choice: a couple deeply in love with each other. Their games expose their bitterness and their jealousies, yes, but they also turn each other on and seem to be some essential component of making their marriage work.
Calista Flockhart might seem an unusual choice for Martha. She's known largely to audiences for her television work on Ally McBeal and Brothers & Sisters, but she has a prolific theatrical resume that pushes her toward greatness. Here, Martha is far more glam than the blowsy harridan many actors interpret her as. She struts her way across the stage in flashy little '60s numbers (designed by Alejo Vietti) until the evening's toll strips it all away. In Flockhart's hands, Martha is less resentful than she is provocative — her sex appeal undeniable rather than desperate.
Zachary Quinto is a superb match for her. He brings a lived-in quality to George's nebbish, put-upon existence, but he laces it with an undercurrent of danger that constantly simmers near the surface. When Martha announces her plans for the evening at the play's start, he's clearly exhausted, trying to gear himself up for what is to come. The ebb and flow of his frustration and relish manifest themselves in Quinto's nimble ability to turn on a dime from wry predator to cornered prey.
His and Martha's dance is viscerally sensual, their night of improv sprung upon their unsuspecting guests an erotic thriller of its own making. The two trade off their roles, alternatively pushed to their limits and toying with the others in the room like a spider with its dinner.
Nick and Honey are the quieter parts, but Phillips and Carrero make meals of them all the same. Phillips is delicious as the smarmy, All-American golden boy who thinks he's got George and Martha's number but is consistently ten-steps behind. His cocksureness oozes from every pore, so pervasive we could choke on it. When Martha's seduction takes him down several pegs, his simmering entitlement and rage glimmer just so.
Honey is, perhaps, the play's secret weapon. The dutiful wife who is not even granted a name, merely Nick's moniker of "Honey." Her unraveling clicks the play into overdrive, and Carrero plays it so subtly we barely have time to register the ways in which Albee has suddenly put his foot on the gas. She slips into a state of manic drunkenness in a dance of increments that offers a way for the audience to track the evening's descent into chaos.
Greenberg has brilliantly staged this production, consistently placing Honey on the edge or center of the tableau. Her drunken dozing or confused, rapt attention draws our eye while the rest of the party forgets her. Her placement on the stage makes her a foil for George and Martha's mutual obsession, the ways in which everyone in their lives are mere pawns in their game. And it's also a sobering reminder of the ways in which she is an afterthought in Nick's life.
The show's greatest magic trick is its wicked sense of humor. Virginia Woolf can be played for shock and awe, but at its heart, it is a twisted living room comedy. This production never forgets that, its casual cruelty both sharp and poisonously funny.
Scenic designer Wilson Chin has created a luscious, overstuffed living room upon which the drama unfolds. Lined with shelves of books; banked by a towering window; and littered with cigarettes, a seemingly infinite number of lighters, and half-empty glasses, it's a cluttered dissolute den — a metaphor for the chaotic shambles of its protagonists' souls.
But perhaps its most significant feature is the art deco cocktail cart in the corner, stacked with mid-century glassware and bottles of booze. It's shoved against the wall, but remains the focal point of the action, make no mistake. Quinto's George returns to it throughout the night as if it might provide the answer to a question only he can hear.
Booze is the lubricant of Albee's play, and there is nothing quite so difficult to pull off as playing believably drunk. This quartet not only sells that reality, but offers four startlingly different portraits of the ways the toxic substance exposes their own rot. Carrero never over-eggs Honey's shambolic shimmy, her overeager drunk sorority girl who really, really needs to be taken home an all-too-familiar figure. In contrast, Phillips is a swaggering frat boy, his confidence growing as his fuse shrinks.
Quinto and Flockhart exist in a different and more practiced state of drunkenness, two sides of a functioning alcoholic coin. Quinto's George is practically pickled, the tilt of his crooked grin dragging itself downward with each drink and palpable hit at his competitors. Whereas Martha is the booziest broad, her consumption pushing her from provocateur to needy, vindictive child.
Virginia Woolf is a play that is littered with twists and revelations, but none more-so than the fact that Martha and George truly love each other. Their barbs are cruel, their braying disquieting, but in this cast's hands, underneath the toxicity is a deep attraction and an uncanny sense that this is their version of domestic bliss. Because their game isn't about who wins or loses, it's simply about playing it. A
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