Saving Martha


Daily press hype notwithstanding, no play is a great play its first time around. It may make a great impression, but you never know to what extent that impression is the product of acting, directing, design, or any of the other elements that combine with a script to make up a production. You never know, that is, until you see the play again, preferably some years later and in different production circumstances. Nothing can ever duplicate the full effect of a work that has astounded you originally, since the original astonishment itself has set up expectations. But repeated experience has unmistakable benefits of its own: It can teach you the tensile strength of a play, showing you which aspects of it register no matter what the acting and directing are like; it can reveal unexpected ramifications, depths behind depths, and ideas beyond the ideas you understood the work to embody; it can reinterpret, giving you a startling new view of situations and characters you once took for granted. This is not a simple matter of making light entertainments “dark” or vice versa; any play can be stood on its head by the willful and shortsighted. The point is not to show that there are two sides to the coin, which should go without saying, but to test its metal, to prove that it has true value and is not a counterfeit.

Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) was one of the most contested and discussed plays of its time. It caused shocked objections, angry letters from audience members, and furrowed-brow newspaper editorials, as much for its dramaturgical trickery as for its then-startling language; amid clouds of irate argument, it was refused the Pulitzer Prize, and two of the three judges on the drama panel resigned in protest. When Mike Nichols filmed it three years later, the whole controversy was repeated on a mass-media scale, opening the door for a new freedom of expression in American movies. Since then, Virginia Woolf has had innumerable productions (many of them in Germany, where the translator titled it Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?), but its last New York sighting was nearly 20 years ago, when Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara snarled their way through it, in a fervent but foreshortened rendering that captured the play’s force but seemed to leave its hidden depths unstirred.

In the new production of Virginia Woolf directed by Anthony Page, the opposite seems to have happened: The power the play packed with a towering presence like Dewhurst or Uta Hagen (who created the role) in the lead has faded slightly: Kathleen Turner is effective and resourceful, but not towering, not the artist who can extend her arms the way Hagen did and make, “I am the earth mother and you’re all flops” seem like the most devastating comment ever made by anyone about anything. Turner is supple and sexy; she has a vivid onstage presence; she can suggest the desperation behind Martha’s coarse clowning and the longing behind her malice. What she can’t do is tower: The seeming strength of will that makes Martha so riveting to the other characters, and that has made the role almost mythic in the American repertoire, is not part of Turner’s small and painstakingly arranged toolkit as an actress.

As a result, this time around, the two men are the dominant figures. That the play, so performed, can still fascinate is a tribute to Albee’s structural skill and the intensity of his vision. Martha is emotionally central, the role everybody remembers, but George and Martha’s marriage is the subject. The rivalry of George and Nick—a rivalry seemingly invented by the characters on the spur of the moment, and only half-seriously fought—is the play’s intellectual center: a battle of age against youth, tradition against innovation, humanist compassion against cold scientism, integrity against opportunism. It’s to Albee’s credit, again, that this schema is the characters’ creation rather than his own. He shows you, often and carefully, how people’s reality never matches the simpler version they construct in their heads, the many ways they fail their own ideals. George, ingenious but weak, a perpetual sardonic underplayer, is hardly much of a spokesman for integrity and humane tradition, while Nick, the physical man who proves physically inadequate, is lost in many of the same confusions as George.

The high contrast between Bill Irwin’s George and David Harbour’s Nick seems made to underscore this. Harbour, big-shouldered and considerably taller than Irwin, not only looks like a hulking menace next to the smaller man but, because of their widely different acting styles, suggests virtually a different order of being. Irwin, trained initially as a clown and used to working as a single in near-total silence, creates a masklike image of George that keeps any hint of inner psychology at bay; his words come out in a steady, rat-tat-tat stream, almost uninflected (not always the best thing for his verbally lush role). Harbour, a gifted young actor in the more traditional vein, creates a “real” person with just a slight edge of caricature, a not-cynical-enough young Midwesterner with a doofus, braying laugh and a gnawing sense of his own inadequacy. His portrayal is balanced by Mireille Enos’s even more striking rendition of Honey, not the traditional frail victim but an assertive, hapless mess of a person in her own right. The sharpness of these performances emphasizes an idea buried in the play’s dense fabric (another testimonial to the play’s value): that Nick and Honey are George and Martha in embryo, a weak but nurturing man trapped by attraction-repulsion to a strong-minded woman with a wealthy and powerful father.

In this context, it’s particularly disappointing that the production has cut, presumably to avoid overtime, the important George-Honey scene at the end of Act Two—the scene in which George gets the idea to “kill” the imaginary son, and learns why Honey and Nick have no children (another parallel between the two couples). Without it, the third act’s exorcism seems perfunctory (all the more because Irwin recites the Requiem in the same tone and tempo as George’s wisecracks) and a little puzzling. The tormented night of serious drinking and mutual abuse seems to fizzle out rather than come to a natural climax. Even so, it leaves you pondering, as a good production of Virginia Woolf should, not only what has happened to the two couples, but what their interaction says about us, about America, and about human beings in general. In a way, that the production’s elements don’t always coalesce makes both the richness of Albee’s ideas and the firm way he anchors them more visible. If it makes those of us who saw the original production long for the good old days, it also reaffirms the play’s power to survive even in diminished circumstances—a guarantee that we’re likely to see it again and again.