The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. – Henry David Thoreau
Sometimes the darkness of relationships and the many shadowy disappointments of unsung lives inspire great works of art, music, or theater. As I was watching a preview performance at the Booth Theater of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I wondered about the entertainment value of introspective and difficult art. Why would anyone want to go out and see the pain and suffering of others? Does complex art serve as a short and sharp nuanced philosophical treatise? Am I REALLY just a closet psycho-therapist? Although I don’t quite understand my motivations, I can utterly and completely say that I am wowed by this production directed by Pam McKinnon and acted by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton and which will be opening on Broadway on October 10th. This Edward Albee play will be celebrating its 50th year to date.
I was riveted by the acting by Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, and Madison Dirks. The actors work as an ensemble and not only as soloists waiting for their chance to command the stage. It’s a key differentiating component which makes this production so convincing and emotional. I can just feel how much better a play is when the actors not only focus on their own performances but when there is a focus on the relationship dynamics within the play as they are unfolding. I think that it is the sub rosa of performance that so many actors and directors don’t acknowledge, and therefore, don’t get quite right. It’s sharply and agonizingly painful to watch, and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be half of what the play could be.
At first, the play has an ordinary uncomfortable feel about it. It’s the relatable feeling of having to go to a dinner party or cocktail fashion show and watching hosts bicker and make stinging digs at one another while vaguely drunk. I’ve seen it time and time again. It’s nothing new but Albee’s writing gets it spot-on. These routine digs start escalating when long-time couple, George and Martha, invite a new professor and his wife, who have recently joined the faculty at the college, for a friendly drink after a faculty party. “Games” are played and everyone gets hurt. In the process, the illusions and truths of all four of their lives are laid bare and feelings run raw. There’s a sense of dispelling illusion that feels both liberating and frightening. It feels both forward reaching and past reconciling.
This is the best adaptation I have seen of this play. Tracy Letts, the playwright of the much acclaimed August: Osage County, as George, and longtime Steppenwolf collaborator, Amy Morton, really take it to the next level. It’s the closest interpretation of this Albee play to a natural and deeply complex and human relationship I have seen. It feels rooted in humanity and does not choose the easy affectations of dramatic personae. I saw Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in 2005 on Broadway, as well as, the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton 1966 film. Both were sort of loud and screamy, hateful and fun to watch. Sort of like a train wreck couple you can’t get enough of. If you’re looking for an adaptation that’s a little too close for comfort and hits a little too close to home, this is the closest you’ll get to an honest explication of the complex lives of others. If you haven’t seen it, this is your chance to see some epic acting and directing. Long Live Broadway! Will you See Virginia Woolf? Tell me in your comments!