In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” when the college history prof George flings open the door to the home he shares with his blowzy wife Martha, he might as well greet their guests with, “Welcome to the lions’ den!” — or, the drawing-room comedy in hell.
And once the audience has crossed that threshold in the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s new mounting of Edward Albee’s landmark play, they too will find themselves in a marital war zone, where the combatants are taking no prisoners.
Warning: three-plus hours of (sometimes simultaneously) hilarious and cruel “fun and games” at George and Martha’s pad may induce laughter, shell shock and catharsis.
If you feel all three, Albee’s brilliantly lacerating play will have done its work. And at the Rep, thanks in large part to the pairing of actors Pamela Reed and R. Hamilton Wright, it mostly does.
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“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” hit Broadway in 1962,
when its bursts of profanity and lust, and its savagely unromanticized portrait of academic life and marriage were shocking.
Matthew Smucker’s set design and Braden Abraham’s attentive staging at the Rep evoke an era of LPs and free-flowing booze and faculty wives expected to take vicarious glee (or disappointment) in their husbands’ careers.
Reed shone in another formidable-wife role last year (in ACT Theatre’s “Other Desert Cities”). And as the pugilistic Martha, she conveys all the ferocious wit, tearing anger, lusty desperation and, finally, piteous sorrow of an unfulfilled woman whose misery is unleashed on the only person who, up to a point, can take it — and, in some twisted way, welcomes it.
In Wright’s blazingly articulate, fine-tuned portrayal, George may look like a mild, nebbishy sort. But when juiced up and wound up, he more than matches his wife at the insidious mind games that have become household rituals.
You need to believe in “Virginia Woolf” that, despite their vicious repartee and mutual betrayals, George and Martha actually need and love one another. The intellectual/emotional rapport between Reed and Wright is potent enough to (eventually) confirm that. Without it, “Virginia Woolf” would be a scathingly arch black comedy, with no soul.
We’re also asked to believe Nick (Aaron Blakely), a new biology prof at the college where George teaches (and where Martha’s adored daddy rules the roost), would subject himself and his childlike wife Honey (Amy Hill) to hours of mockery, humiliation and voyeurism from this garrulous older couple.
Hill’s wide-eyed, woozy Honey hits the mark: The more brandy she tipples, the happier she is to rattle her dumb-little-missus cage — until the torturous subject of children arises, and a “Get the Guests” game turns brutal.
Blakely’s wary, wily facial expressions, his smug rejoinders to George’s needling, capture the aura of a callow opportunist who takes his good looks and good fortune for granted.
But Nick is also meant to represent (albeit unfairly) the corrosion of academia, even the fall of Western Civilization, in George’s jaundiced view. And there’s not enough heat of ruthless ambition emanating from Blakely to suggest why he’d endure such a verbal battering.
The Rep’s “Virginia Woolf” also has sluggish stretches, notably in Act 2.
And it helps to keep some retro-facts in mind: A) childless hetero couples were once objects of pity.
And B) “Virginia Woolf” is also a play about “Mad Men”-era alcoholism — the consolations and buzz, the memory lapses, the disinhibition and disgust.
Abraham and his actors skillfully track the progress of drunkenness during this hooch-fueled night, which should trigger a hellish four-way hangover — and, perhaps, some much-needed tenderness.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org