Unholy Matrimony

With venom and bite, Edward Albee's quick study of the corrosion of intimacy remains thoroughly irresistible

With a bray of ”Jesus H. Christ!” rupturing the still night air, Kathleen Turner stumbles on to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower stage with all of the grace and charm of a running bull. It takes a moment or two to warm up to John Lee Beatty’s worn domestic set, but once the lady of the house is settled in and swilling back her poison, we realize this is no cozy evening spent with a college professor and his quaint housewife. This is Edward Albee’s mind-bending Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And this is Turner’s gravel-throated Martha, an inebriated tyrant of extraordinary wit, a grand dame who seems larger than life in her small New England town.



Predator and prey: Turner and Furr
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

It’s 1960, and George and Martha, two weary ”middle-age types,” have just returned from a faculty party where Martha, the daughter of the campus president, invited a young biology professor and his wife over for a nightcap. It isn’t long before the vitriol flies back and forth between husband and wife, and Bill Irwin’s milquetoast George devolves from a simpering puppy into a rabid dog. Engaging the younger couple in their cruel games of humiliation, George and Martha bruise each other with verbal warfare and relentless bullets from the past. As the evening deteriorates into one long, vicious exercise, it ultimately exposes the beautifully perverse fantasy life of couples behind closed doors.

This is Albee as provocateur, with his signature neurotic discourse and swerving intentions, our twisted guide on a long saunter through domestic hell. And of course any mention of the perennial classic Who’s Afraid… immediately recalls Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version with then-lovebirds Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Here, Anthony Page revives the 2004 stage version in a five-city, five-month national tour, and the result of his efforts is a modest production with memorable performances from both leads. It’s difficult to sustain the momentum and the bitter bile that simmers beneath a 23-year marriage over three grueling acts, but Albee’s would-be harrowing story is a slow burn, the effect of watching a gruesome car accident happen in slow motion. Page’s Woolf never lives up its catastrophic potential, lacking that intangible creepiness that pulls you away from the back of your seat with disbelief. Instead, his conservative direction doesn’t allow the actors to tap into a primal performance without slipping into sheer melodrama.

Still, Turner and Irwin stew in the boiling undertones of two people who alternately love and revile one another, who know the other’s sore spots and who pinch them nonetheless. And while George’s passive-aggressive rants can seem downright spectacular when mixed in with the occasional moment of sobriety, Virginia Woolf has always been about Martha’s malice.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
To Jan. 28
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
$25-$78
202-467-4600
www.kennedy-center.org

It’s difficult to imagine a Martha who is at once both brazen and vulnerable, but Turner commands the stage with a woman burdened by her own hate. Turner freshens up a scene like a crisp swig of bourbon, and she meets Irwin’s blows with stinging insults and crushing criticism.

David Furr and Kathleen Early are both serviceable as the naïve couple who fall prey to George and Martha’s ugly games, a pair of unfortunate victims just beginning their lives together. Furr’s Nick is a tall facsimile of Brad Pitt — and just as smug — while Early’s ”slim-hipped” Honey is a terrific foil for Irwin’s ravenous George.

Like the inevitability of an imbalanced marriage, Page’s Woolf is only mildly disappointing, delivering all bark with some deeply venomous bite. And although his revival fails to resonate with the kind of poignant melancholy that Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses brought to the same Kennedy Center stage this time last year, Albee’s quick study of the corrosion of intimacy remains thoroughly irresistible.

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