The Booth Theatre, New York
Behold, “the first necessary ticket of the Broadway season,” said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. In this “tightrope-taut” production, imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Edward Albee’s rendering of an eloquent, savage marital brawl still has “the bantam energy and strong bite” that stunned audiences in 1962. That’s no small achievement. Virginia Woolf has reached an age when many plays start “showing signs of flab,” and it’s facing an audience that’s far harder to surprise. But this is no gentle walk down memory lane: I’ve seen this play many times, “but never before have I felt such a prickly sense of dread as the three acts unfolded in all their symphonic discord.”
“What a marvelous bloodletting” we witness, said Scott Brown in New York magazine. Under director Pam MacKinnon’s sure hand, the blistering dialogue spills forth “as if conducted by Bernstein.” MacKinnon has also chosen to reset the balance of power between George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife, Martha. Tracy Letts’s George is not the nebbishy counterpuncher most actors make him; in fact, he’s “a bit of a bully”—despite being less verbose than Martha, he knows how to go in for the kill. Amy Morton has meanwhile “restored a great deal of humanity” to Martha, a character who’s “easy to play as a simple harridan.” Playing the dinner guests who become reluctant witnesses to the marital carnage, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon complete a “violently good” cast.
There’s only one aspect of this production “about which I have even the slightest of doubts,” said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. But wishing that the set design were less naturalistic is nitpicking, since “this is as fine a Virginia Woolf as you’re likely to see in a lifetime of playgoing.” Though Albee’s main intent was clearly to obliterate mid-century America’s obsession with keeping up appearances, our focus in 2012 stays squarely, and satisfyingly, on the characters. It’s riveting enough to simply watch the pitiful display of two people “clawing ceaselessly at one another to distract themselves from the terrible knowledge that neither of them got what they wanted out of life.”