“I’m loud, and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to,” declares Amy Morton’s Martha, in the perplexingly off-balance revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Booth Theatre) that has arrived on Broadway after its enthusiastic reception at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. And as with Morton’s assertion of her character’s loudness, the loud acclaim that Pam MacKinnon’s production has received seems oddly overstated. The show offers plenty to admire, much of it coming from the simple pleasure of hearing Albee’s idea-packed, verbally rich text being handsomely articulated, but it also offers unexpected blank spots and scenes that go inexplicably flat instead of building. Like Morton’s rendering of Martha, it seems to go softest while proclaiming its own ferocity.
Morton displayed ferocity—almost excessively, I thought—in August: Osage County, written by Tracy Letts, who plays George to her Martha in the current Virginia Woolf. But August, a supersized, all-the-Schadenfreude-you-can-eat soap opera, has its emotional signals very plainly marked. Albee’s 1962 play, a perennial with two previous Broadway revivals and a notable film version in its backpack, provides a decidedly trickier challenge, which might easily lure actors or directors into losing their way.
Albee’s George and Martha, the father and mother of a spiritually barren country populated solely by their joint imagination, have what later generations came to call a co-dependent relationship, enabling each other’s alcoholism and the game-playing fantasies by which each copes with an untenable life situation that neither has the will power to escape. A weak diffidence, varied with splotches of sardonic humor, is the pose George wears, allowing Martha—loud, vulgar, and sexually aggressive—to act out the dominant role. Presumably all too familiar to established residents of the New England college town where George teaches history and Martha functions as dutiful daughter to the college’s president, the role game has great flexibility, confusing faculty newcomers who stumble on it accidentally and mistake the roles for the couple’s actual essence. Hence the cathartic misfortune of the evening Albee chronicles, when Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), the ambitious new biology instructor and his high-strung wife, unwisely venture over, for a nightcap following a faculty reception.
Albee has carefully charted the emotional mayhem that ensues, which arises partly because George and Martha have neared the breaking point, and partly because Nick, too, has an agenda, which throws a monkey wrench into theirs. Sandwiched between the evening’s layers of increasingly hostile game-playing, Albee spreads tantalizing tastes of larger issues: genetic engineering versus humanist ethics (with religion drifting into the mix); technocratic pragmatism versus creative imagination. Written while pundits fretted about conformist “organization men,” or smugly prophesied “the end of ideology,” Virginia Woolf prefigures, like an early hand-drawn map, the routes of today’s culture wars.
Understandable though the temptation to rethink and update the map may be, MacKinnon’s production plots a rocky, often contradictory course. Morton does indeed wear pants, but rarely seems to wear the authority that goes with them. Low-toned except when the script actively demands a yell, she seems far too modest to describe herself as “vulgar,” and displays little energy, sexual or otherwise. Neither does Dirks’s quiet, seemingly uncagey Nick, making his interest in Martha seem quite implausible; his physical stance periodically suggests someone who’s been instructed to take a sexually provocative pose. Coon’s Honey, though nicely mixing jumpy brashness with vulnerability, supplies no hint of a churchman’s demure daughter in her background.
In this houseful of meek mice, it’s Letts’s George who wears the assertiveness pants. Big and forceful, tossing his sardonic zingers like a king throwing coins to the peasantry, he makes Morton’s return snipes look in contrast like tentative gestures of defiance. The resulting clarity offers one great advantage: Since George’s “convoluted” (Martha’s word), allusion-laden sentences contain most of the play’s word count, Albee’s writing comes through, full-strength. This makes Letts a great improvement over Bill Irwin, in the ’05 revival, whose words seemed to evanesce as they emerged from his mouth. But it keeps George constantly in charge of a ship that others should, at various points, be steering. As a result, you get action that makes only flickering sense, accompanied by words—zesty, aromatic, flamboyantly exciting Albee words—that build a solid, urgent reality in your mind.