Who’s Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf On Broadway

Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, opening on Broadway October 13, 2012

A chat with the four-member cast of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play about a late-night encounter between two couples, which is opening on Broadway at the Booth Theater on October 13, 2012 — exactly 50 years after the play first opened on Broadway — reveals that they each remember how they first got exposed to the work of Edward Albee, and what it meant to them. As it turns out, some of THEM were afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

“It’s very scary to a little kid,” says Tracy Letts, better-known as a playwright (“August: Osage County, Superior Donuts, Bug), who first read the play when he was about 12, and was shocked to think “oh this is how adults behave.

“My adult life has only confirmed to me that this IS how adults behave.”

More on the video below:

My review:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Review: A Broadway Sensation, 50 Years Later

“You’re all flops,” Martha says drunkenly to her guest in “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” the first full-length play by Edward Albee, which has proven once again to be the opposite of a flop. Its fourth Broadway production, which opened on Saturday – 50 years to the day after the first Broadway production – is a hit…palpably, to the guts. The original “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” caused a sensation, and that is true as well of the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production, transferred intact from Chicago, directed by Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park) and starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and Tony-nominated star, respectively, of “August: Osage County.” It is sensational.

I mean that in at least two ways. There is something of the tabloid-sensational in the story of two married couples descending into alcohol-fueled, vicious late-night mind games. But there is no denying that Albee’s words, full of wit and fury, can make for crackling good theater. The surprise here, at least for New York audiences, is the performance by Letts, making his Broadway acting debut, who takes control from the moment he kicks off his shoes in the opening moments of the play, as George, the disappointing and disappointed history professor, married to Martha, the daughter of the college’s esteemed president. Upending the normal dynamic of the play, this George is not the emasculated drunk normally rendered in the role, but more of a shrewd schemer.

Amy Morton, playing one of the most spectacular roles for women ever created for the American stage – played larger-than-life by Uta Hagen, Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen Turner — is less of an over-the-top diva, more vulnerable, brittle. Their characterizations are a recalibration that makes the work feel fresher.

Rounding out the cast are Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon as Nick, the cocky and callow young new professor in the biology department, and Honey, his mousey wife, the couple whom Martha invites back to the house after a faculty party, launching the long night of revelations, debauchery, and cruelty. These two actors are also making their Broadway debuts, and their performances are spot-on. So is Todd Rosenthal’s set, an academic’s house with every corner covered with piles of books – a perfect little detail.

It seems wrong simply to swoon over a play that is so acerbic and surreal, so let me force a quibble. Albee has written deeper dramas since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Both “A Delicate Balance” and “Three Tall Women” strike me as more substantive and more anchored in a recognizable (if no less harsh) reality. On the other hand, none of Albee’s three dozen or so plays has accumulated so much lore around it – not just the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie, which was Mike Nichols’ debut as a filmmaker, but the scandals and controversies.

Albee was already famous as a bad boy trickster playwright for the one act “Zoo Story” four years earlier, when “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” hit an unsuspecting Broadway, winning five Tony Awards, including for best play. It was also selected by the nominating committee for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But the trustees of Columbia over-ruled the committee, reportedly concerned about reactions to the play as too vulgar and shocking. No drama award was given that year. Though the trustees continue in this unfortunate habit of overriding the juries, they would be far less likely to do it for the same reason today, because audiences are far less likely to be shocked now by adult shenanigans on stage – thanks to Albee’s influence, which Letts recently acknowledged is ubiquitous. Is it ironic that Letts the playwright is one of those responsible for making “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seem less revolutionary? No matter. Letts the actor does penance, by turning this “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” 50 years later, into an eye-opener and a thrill.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At the Booth Theater (222 West 45th Street) By Edward Albee Directed by Pam MacKinnon; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates Cast: Tracy Letts (George), Amy Morton (Martha), Carrie Coon (Honey) and Madison Dirks (Nick). Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes, including two ten-minute intermissions “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is scheduled to run through January 27, 2013 but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t extended.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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