BIG, BAD WOOLF
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? AT AHMANSON THEATRE
There is no doubt in my mind that Edward Albee is our greatest living playwright and that his infamous Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of his most groundbreaking and enduring masterpieces, right behind his most recent and best work, the fellow question mark-ending The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Now that last year’s much talked about Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf? has arrived here at the Ahmanson featuring its celebrated stars Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, the wonder of this amazing play comes to fruition once again. Yet, for me, this fine and most respectful presentation still remains in the shadow of the first sight of this revolutionary play in 1962.
See, I am fortunately/unfortunately old enough to have seen the original New York production at age 15, and there’s no doubt that, although it was one of the defining moments of my life and began my lifelong worship of the late-great Uta Hagan, Albee’s then almost scandalously adult play has lost a bit of its bite in the past (yikes!) 45 years. There was something genuinely shocking back then when this quartet of mismatched party guests met back at George and Martha’s New England college town to drink and insult and fornicate the long and dysfunctional night away. Audiences gasped in surprise when Honey shouted out “Hump the hostess!” and Martha brayed her late night displeasure about the sexual deficiencies of her drunken guest’s non-performing husband, whom she’s taken off to bed right under the nose of her long-suffering spouse and sparing partner George.
In an era since desensitized by David Mamet and Neil LaBute and David Lindsay-Abaire, among many other playwrights inspired and given sanction to go further than early Albee, the antics and language of the scribe’s characters now seem incredibly tame. Virginia Woolf?, despite its age, is not quite yet in the category of O’Neill or Ibsen, not quite yet able to make the transfer from dated to classic. Perhaps one of the prime examples of this is when Nick (David Furr) tells the tale of how Honey (Kathleen Early) roped him into marriage with a false pregnancy. “She blew up,” he tells George, “and then she went down,” a phrase that’s repeated twice and, of course, takes on a whole new meaning in 2007, one director Anthony Page is smart enough to highlight instead of ignore, giving the guys a moment of knowing giggles before continuing on with the text.
This is no doubt a fine restoration of Albee’s career-making three-act epic play that will one day help define the middle of 20th century morals and manners, a nearly perfect production under the respectful direction of Page, and beautifully augmented by John Lee Beatty’s knockout set and all but one of the production’s world-class designers (the conundrum of Turner’s bizarrely unattractive costuming by Jane Greenwood might be a result of a case of diva-itis and not the designer’s fault).
As the memory of Hagan will, for me, always overshadow any subsequent revival of Virginia Woolf?, the performance here of Irwin as George, which won him the Tony, will surely haunt my ability to objectively judge anyone attempting this role in the future. Irwin’s background in physical comedy so energizes this George, from his brilliantly thrown away one-liners to his practiced downtrodden latter-day Peter O’Toole posture and walk. It’s never been before that anyone playing George outshined his Martha, but here that is absolutely the case. As his partner in verbal abuse, Turner is surprisingly lackluster, starting the evening so high and so grand that her audience, as the character of her husband beaten down by years of abuse, prepares itself for a “bumpy ride.”
By the end of the play, however, Turner loses her steam, giving the jarring final confrontation as George decides to kill their fictitious Sonny Jim a most bizarrely defeated spin. As Martha, Hagan turned into a panther on the attack in this scene, leaving the audience drained and exhausted; sadly, Turner seems to be the only one exhausted here. Hers is also a startlingly unsexy Martha, decked out in extra-large menswear, her hair unkempt and later pulled back severely, giving the illusion of no make-up whatsoever, making Martha’s line “I’m an earth mother!” more to-the-point than it was hilarious when Hagan made such an outrageous statement.
In contrast, as Martha, Hagan looked something akin to a 1960 jazz club temptress, with bouffant hair and eyes made up with heavy black liquid liner as though her character was conceived by Shag, arriving down the staircase after she’s changed into “something more comfortable” in a bright red chiffon robe with ruffled collar and front paneling to match. Turner, oddly, emerges from her bedroom in jeans and a man’s oversized flannel workshirt. And the problem here isn’t that the former seductress of Body Heat has gotten older and more plus-sized; when Hagan did a CTG benefit reading of Virginia Woolf? opposite Jonathan Pryce on this same Ahmanson stage in 2000 at age 80, she was still incredibly sexy in the role.
Furr finds some interesting colors that are customarily missing in playing Nick, including a set of balls that aren’t quite as easily squeezed as usual, but under Page’s mistaken directorial guidance here, Early makes the huge error of playing Honey as an exaggerated Eastern Seaboard upperclass Gloria Upson from Auntie Mame, depicting her character as so cartoonlike right from the get-go there’s no surprise or fun in watching Honey evolve, with copious amounts of brandy, from mouse to drunken hellion.
Still this is a fine production—if not the “quality” theatrical production Miss Turner commented in print she was pleased to bring to such a provincial burg as Los Angeles, a place she said in an interview about the opening of Virginia Woolf? has never been “known as a theatre town.” May I just say, as a resident of both LA and Manhattan, I regularly see far better and more impressive theatre presented on this coast than I do in New York these days—and though she may be a gifted (though deluded) actor, I’ve seen far better Martha’s in my day, played by people able to actually sustain the character for all three acts. P
The Ahmanson Theatre is located at 135 N. Grand Av. in the Los Angeles Music Center; for tickets, call (213) 628-2772.