We all know that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, considered one of the great post-war American plays, was adapted into the unforgettable 1966 film by Mike Nichols starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s only natural we should approach any revival of this witty, dark, and devastating drama with some trepidation, and even sympathy for whoever dares stepping into the shoes of titans. So it’s a reason for joy that this version, directed by Gordon Greenberg, not only holds us captive in its sharp teeth for the over 3-hours run time, but even manages to give us a fresh take on the beloved, jaded characters, thanks to some atypical casting choices.
It all takes place in the course of a single night at the home of middle-aged couple, George (Zachary Quinto – The Boys in the Band, Star Trek), a college history professor; and his wife, Martha (Calista Flockhart – Alley McBeal), the daughter of the university’s president. It’s 2 A.M. and the couple arrive from a faculty party drunk and bristling for a fight. But Martha’s also invited a young couple, Nick (Graham Phillips – Riverdale, The Good Wife), a new, jockish biology teacher, and his mousey wife, Honey (Aimee Carrero – The Offer, Spirited) ostensibly for a nightcap — or is it to serve first as an audience, and then, participants?
This, perhaps, is the Martha that Albee would’ve written had he done it today instead of the 60’s.
Flockhart’s Martha is breathtakingly sexy — more Marilyn Monroe than Liz Taylor’s “ample” Martha — but just as ferocious as she needs to be. Mercurially changing from a vulgar bully to purring femme fatale and then unfulfilled woman, she delivers a kaleidoscope performance that not only firmly banishes her predecessors, but reveals a new, more timely Martha for our age — one who has perhaps enlisted cosmetic treatments to hold on to the appearance of youth while her husband, a husk of the man he used to be, tries to keep up, at least with this wit. This, perhaps, is the Martha that Albee would’ve written had he done it today instead of the 60’s. Quinto’s George is electrifying as the punching bag that swings back at Martha every now and then to open the sutures on old wounds, but not without bleeding a little bit himself. Phillips and Carrero are the perfect contrast to them, troubled by ghosts of their own, but young and idealistic enough to think they’ll exorcise them.
Wilson Chin’s spectacular set design – a homely, cozy living room full of books, old records, dimly lit lamps, and of course, plenty of booze — is so authentic and rich that we are more than happy to spend the hours without a single set change. There’s also a fifth character in the play, one that Albee never wrote, but whose presence enriches the others and remains with you long after you’ve exited the theater — the original score by Lindsay Jones. In a pivotal scene, Martha switches George’s classical record for jazz as she prepares to seduce Nick, and plays Jones’s Les Orages Arrivent (vocals by Alexia Landau, trumpet by Chris Tedesco, and saxophone by Jason Singer), a noir composition reminiscent of Miles Davis and early Mark Isham (Romeo is Bleeding, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle). Paired with Martha’s swaying hips and some free-flowing bourbon, it is nothing less than a siren song, guaranteed to lead mortals to delicious doom.
— G. Dhalla / Victor Riobo
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? runs at the Geffen Playhouse through May 22nd. Tickets HERE.