Irwin, Turner find laughs, depth in howling Woolf
three stars [1/2] stars Painfully funny
Why is it we’re still interested in George and Martha, the bellicose spouses in Edward Albee’s 1962 drama in which very little happens?
Within the first few minutes of the play, Martha calls George a “dumbbell” and tells him, “You make me puke…If you existed, I’d divorce you.” Then she describes him as a “simp,” “blah,” “cipher,” “zero.”
Albee’s play doesn’t shock as much anymore, but more than 40 years after its sensational debut, it still stings. Maybe that’s why we’re willing to sit through George and Martha’s nightmarish relationship. We go to the theater to feel something, and a sting is something.
Of course our interest in George and Martha depends largely on the actors playing them, and in the touring Broadway production of the play now at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner (above) are putting on a hell of a show — hell being the operative word.
With her Body Heat and Romancing the Stone days behind her, Turner has evolved into something of a sexy linebacker. She’s still sexy and gravelly voiced, but she’s also big and scary. There’s a vehemence to her underscored by intelligence that gives you the distinct impression this woman isn’t going to take any crap from anyone.
And Irwin, beloved in the Bay Area for years as part of the Pickle Family Circus and later as one of the world’s greatest clowns, seems at times to turn George into a clown, but he also manages to make the character so tightly wound, so deeply troubled it seems he’ll pop his sanity spring at any moment.
The Turner-Irwin pas de deux — under the sensitive direction of Anthony Page — is more than enough reason to see this sturdy production, especially if your only memory of the play is the 1966 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This version is much funnier, much less shrill and, thanks to Albee’s 2004 revisions, much more mysterious.
To watch George and Martha eviscerate each other in front of their late-night, post-party guests Nick (David Furr, below with Turner) and Honey (Kathleen Early) is to witness performers truly come alive in front of their audience. Are George and Martha really as awful as they seem, drinking up a storm and screaming at each other about deeply personal failures and flaws? Or are they playing games and putting on a show for their own perverse amusement?
There’s no real answer, but that’s pretty much it for plot. Somehow, Albee manages to stretch the mystery (and satisfy our voyeuristic need for “schadenfreude,” the German notion of finding happiness in the misfortune of others) over three acts, titled “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism.”
It certainly helps that Furr, as the latest golden boy to catch Martha’s eye, and Early, as his quick-to-vomit lush of a wife, are such compelling victims of George and Martha’s twisted idea of an evening’s entertainment.
Nick and Honey are shocked by George and Martha’s sparring, but George reassures them: “Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all.”
Well, they get quite a workout.
By Act 3, when the constant cocktails have turned everyone into zombies and the games get really ugly, Albee is aiming for something more than harsh comedy or dark social satire. As George and Martha talk about their (possibly fictional) son, their games become more exposed and their need for each other more blatant.
This is where the production flattens out some. Genuine emotion feels foreign, and, like addicts, we’re left wanting just a little more bile. Seeing George and Martha as damaged human beings rather than well-armed matrimonial guerillas is, sorry to say, a disappointment.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exhausting, but in a good way. By the end, you feel you’ve experienced something, even if that something makes you feel you’ve had too many drinks, cigarettes and fights and you can’t wait to leave the stuffy living room (terrifically realistic set by John Lee Beatty and lights by Peter Kaczorowski) you’ve been happily trapped in.
We’ve appreciated Albee’s sharp, funny writing and the expertly nuanced performances, but, like Nick and Honey, we just want to go home and see if any of the wounds are visible.
To paraphrase George, that, as they say, is that.
For information about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? visit www.shnsf.com.
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