It takes two to make a memorable fight, and a heavyweight beating up a lightweight is no contest at all. The Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s famous drama about a murderously destructive marriage, is a reminder of how good the play still is. But I’m afraid it’s an uneven battle between Kathleen Turner’s galvanizing performance as the savage Martha and Bill Irwin’s not-so-wonderful George.
When the shocking play premiered in 1962, it was said to belong to the Theater of the Absurd, which itself was an absurd claim. Mr. Albee’s antecedents here are Strindberg and O’Neill. But O’Neill believed in pipe dreams, whereas Mr. Albee mercilessly strips away all illusions. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is “A Long Day’s Journey into Booze.” No bigger character has been invented for the modern stage than the monstrous Martha. Yet this bullying, foul woman is unexpectedly funny. For one witty thing, Mr. Albee has given her one of the great theatrical lines. “You’re all flops,” Martha announces with a flourish. “I am the Earth Mother, and you’re all flops!”
All men-disappointing husbands, crummy lovers, the world itself-are great big flops. “I disgust me …, ” Martha then adds witheringly. It could be prissily said that Mr. Albee’s devouring heroine isn’t too flattering to those delicate, pretty things called women. But his intention isn’t to flatter anyone-including his soulless, embittered men.
Booze has always been useful in plays. It loosens tongues. Who’s Afraid of… is a drunken New England faculty bitchfest between the grotesque, domineering president’s daughter, Martha-”My arm has got tired whipping you!”-and her younger husband George, who’s a failed middle-aged historian. Two late-night faculty guests of theirs, the newly married Nick and Honey, become their prey-easy meat for vindictive, disappointed people. Nick, the ambitious, shallow biology professor, and Honey, his unhappy, well-connected wife-who’s already drowning herself in brandy-are embryo versions of George and Martha.
The opening words of the play are symptomatic of the marital blood sport to follow, a warm-up to an eternal double act.
“Jesus,” Martha snarls as they enter their home at 2 a.m.
“Shhhhhh …, ” says the defensive George.
“What a dump,” she adds, looking round her own living room, imitating Bette Davis.
“WHAT’S IT FROM, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE?” she yells to her husband about the line.
But George hasn’t a clue.
“Dumbbell! It’s from some goddamn Bette Davis picture … some goddamn Warner Bros. epic.”
(Note to cineastes: “What a dump”-Beyond the Forest, 1949).
The games have begun. They keep their marriage alive. Nobody escapes the lacerating truths the games reveal. Who’s Afraid of … isn’t a pleasant play. Look at the names Martha and George give their degrading games, like nasty, insulting party tricks: “Get the Guests,” ”Hump the Hostess,” “Humiliate the Host” and the most dangerously personal of all, “Bringing Up Baby.”
“Bringing Up Baby” represents the ultimate showdown between Martha and George, and it’s about their secret, imaginary son. Some have argued that the son is real. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t take them at their word. The imagined child symbolically avoids the truth about their barren marriage.
We would expect Ms. Turner to be comfortably brassy. But as Martha, she’s unembarrassed and emotionally naked. She’s scorchingly honest in all she does. I never saw Uta Hagen’s legendary Martha. But it would be hard to imagine a better one than Miss Turner’s. Her striking achievement is to reveal within Martha’s ugly, vast disappointment a form of love. The horrible, touching truth is that George and Martha love each other.
Their bloodletting games of mutual loathing subside in the best speech in the play, and Ms. Turner delivers it to quiet, stunning effect:
“George who is good to me, and whom I revile; who understands me, and whom I push off; who can make me laugh, and I choke it back in my throat; who can hold me at night, so that it’s warm, and whom I will bite so there’s blood, who keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules; who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.”
But as I say with regrets, Mr. Irwin’s George is no match for Ms. Turner’s Martha, who could eat him alive for breakfast (and practically does). It’s said that Mr. Albee personally cast Mr. Irwin in the role. If so, it’s a classic example of even the most distinguished playwrights not knowing what’s best for them.
The actor is well known, of course, for his virtuoso performances as a meek and hapless whiteface clown. I’ve seen him play Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, but I wrote at the time that words-and streams of words, at that-aren’t Mr. Irwin’s strength. I missed his admired performance in Mr. Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, when he took over the role of the happily married man who falls in love with a flirtatious goat. The art of playing deadpan would have served him well.
But his George in Who’s Afraid of … is too unconvincingly slight. It isn’t a question of Mr. Irwin’s natural meekness and good nature. But his clenched-jaw resentment is no substitute for real, live danger. He makes the line “I could rip you to pieces” seem like mere petulance. You’ve only to watch 10 minutes of Richard Burton’s George in the 1966 Mike Nichols film version of the play to see the profound difference. For once, the shrillness of the almost miscast Elizabeth Taylor is appropriate, but the snarling seediness of Burton rings painfully true. His portrait of failure and disappointed hopes is found in his predatory self-loathing.
We ought to change sides a lot in the battles between George and Martha, but we can’t if the fight is unequal. Mr. Irwin lacks the necessary venom and sex appeal. George might have had his balls lopped off by Martha. But Mr. Irwin makes him neutrally asexual, like a whiteface clown. His movements are innately light, even airless. His tight facial expressions are too much a mask.
There’s no subtext in the mannered Mr. Irwin, and little or no variation. George’s crucial Act II scene with the younger faculty member, Nick (the excellent David Harbour), ought to be a chilling demolition job, a malicious killing of apparent innocence for sport. But Mr. Irwin isn’t really scaring anyone.
The veteran British director, Anthony Page, has erred by casting a Nick who’s a bigger man than George! Mr. Harbour makes Mr. Irwin look lighter and less substantial than he actually is. The mousy Honey of Mireille Enos has been encouraged to play too broadly for laughs. The admirable Ms. Turner takes the play. When she’s not onstage, we miss her too much. But in the dominant force of Martha is the play’s weakness.
I’ve never understood why George’s taunting, last-minute admission to Nick and Honey that they had a son-whether he’s real or imagined-should leave Martha pleading helplessly with him to stop, as if the Wicked Witch had suddenly been shrunk to nothing.
“No more,” Martha begs George uncharacteristically. But he cannot be stopped. He’s breaking the unwritten rules of the game and is going to kill off their child. He was killed, George announces, driving on a country road when he swerved to avoid a porcupine.
The dramatist’s stage note has Martha “quivering with rage and loss”: “NO! NO!” she protests. “YOU CANNOT DO THAT! YOU CAN’T DECIDE THAT FOR YOURSELF! I WILL NOT LET YOU DO THAT!”
It’s high melodrama. The illusion of the child is what appears to keep George and Martha together. But the overdramatic, convenient conclusion is why Mr. Albee’s groundbreaking drama stops short of greatness. Blame the porcupine.
“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf …,” George sings softly like a nightmare lullaby at the close.
“I … am … George … I … am …” Martha admits forebodingly, just before the curtain descends.
For myself, they were the only words she said the entire evening that I didn’t believe.