Review: A riveting Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Wedded blisters
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 8, 2010

Edward Albee’s brilliant, savage first full-length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, needs to be done marvelously or not at all. At more than 3-1/2 hours, including two intermissions, anything less than riveting performances will have us smashing our watches under our heels.

But thank goodness. An independent production at Perishable Theatre (through September 12), directed by Jimmy Calitri and co-produced with Josh Short, is a marvel indeed.

The performances here will impress even those who know the play only through Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who skillfully snarled at each other through the 1966 film version, as George and Martha “entertained” a young couple in their living room one long, boozy night.

That wolf pack tone of the play is indicated by Albee’s titles for the three acts: “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “The Exorcism.”

Before I detail the savagery, let me draw attention to one of the descriptive words above. Fun — albeit wicked fun — is much of what we’re witnessing George and Martha have as they play emotional badminton, sometimes using their guests as shuttlecocks.

George (Jim O’Brien) is a 40something professor of history — oops, sorry: assistant professor — at a college where the father of his wife, Martha (Rae Mancini), is president. Their 3 am guests, invited over after a faculty party, consist of a handsome young addition to the biology department, Nick (Josh Short), and his bubble-headed wife Honey (Bonnie Griffin). He married her only because she had an hysterical pregnancy, as in psychosomatic.

Martha regards her husband as weak, largely because he never had the ambition to be the history department instead of just being in the history department, as she puts it several times. As she also says: “I swear — if you existed, I’d divorce you.” Normally, over their 23 years together, he has learned to tune out her nagging. But with witnesses to his humiliation tonight, he rouses himself to give as much as he gets, and then some.

The other couple have quite an evening themselves. The youthful ambition that Nick harbors is slowly drawn out until he shows himself to be as ruthless, though less brazenly so, as his hosts. Short nicely balances indications of Nick’s self-centeredness with a default state of canny politeness, keeping Nick careful until he relaxes into his cocky self. Honey epitomizes not knowing oneself, skating along on the polite niceties that maintain sociability. Griffin, with help from Albee, does a good job in Act One keeping us unsure about just how vapid and unaware Honey is. By the time we come to a conclusion — dumb as a stump — she has become a reminder of how well social conventions allow brain-dead people to mingle successfully in the general population.

Liquor is a fifth character here, appearing every few minutes as drinks are topped up. It serves not so much as a social lubricant as an IV drip of morphine, deadening them to the consequences of their actions or, in Honey’s case, the meanness of others.

Both George and Martha exemplify the hypocrisy that lays a thin veneer beneath social convention, as Albee sees it, ready to be exposed. The playwright is not without sympathy in examining the suffering beneath such artifice. Between Mancini and director Calitri, this Martha is not the shrill harridan of most productions of this play. It’s not that Mancini softens her but that she shows Martha having twisted fun, not so much sadistic toward George as goading him to give back in kind and show some spunk. At one point, Martha says that she is not a monster, and here we believe her.

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