Originally I thought about going to the movies but they’re always so crowded on Christmas Day. So at the last minute I bought a ticket for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that has been getting great reviews. Why not spend Christmas night the same as so many other Americans do? – listening to drunken arguments.
The Booth Theatre is one of the smaller theaters on Broadway. It’s very intimate. The play is long (3-1/2 hours including two intermissions) and that’s a long time to spend in a small space with people getting drunker and drunker and the arguments getting nastier and nastier. At the first intermission I overheard the guy in front of me tell his partner that he couldn’t sit there, they had some back and forth that I couldn’t hear, and then they left and did not come back. That’s how intense the play can get. I do think if you grew up in a similar household the play can be difficult to watch.
But it’s also very funny. The laughter runs throughout the play and sometimes the actors had to pause in order to let the laughter die down. I knew the ending so there were some moments when I didn’t laugh quite so hard or when other moments hit a little too close to home.
I first saw the play when the movie premiered on network television (late 1960s) so that was all I knew about it. I was about 11yo and it made quite an impression on me. I’d seen Edward Albee’s Sandbox and some other short plays of his so I was already a fan. Virginia Woolf is a whole ‘nother animal however.
In this production the intensity grows slowly. I don’t know if in the film it was the actors’ or director’s choice but the intensity started high and seemed to stay there. But here George and Martha start at a very slow simmer, boil, simmer, boil, and then finally boil over until the heat dissipates entirely.
The play takes place in fall, 1962 in the home of a small New England college history professor and his wife, who is the daughter of the college president. A younger couple visits – he is a new biology professor at the college and his wife is a quiet woman who can’t hold her liquor. The older couple drinks and plays mind games with each other and they drag the unwilling younger couple into the games. Secrets are revealed as each person (except the young wife) fights to be alpha dog. And the younger couple realizes they are not so different from the older couple.
Why would you want to spend three hours with these people? First of all, it’s very funny. I can’t stress how funny this play is. Pam MacKinnon is Albee’s choice of director for his plays and you see why. She really understands the material. Tracy Letts (George) is brilliant. His slow burn and final fury are very real. His other life as a playwright helps, I’m sure. Amy Morton (Martha) is also brilliant – she cuts and smiles while she watches you bleed but then you can see that she’s also cut herself at the same time. Madison Dirks (Nick) plays the arrogant young man who is not as confident as he wants to be. And Carrie Coon (Honey) doesn’t have a lot of time on stage but you’re always watching her when she is on stage.
And a shout-out to Todd Rosenthal for the stage design. The small living room is stacked with books – not only on the bookshelves but on every window seat and every corner of the house. The home looks lived in by a New England couple that has been married for 23 years.
Funny line I heard while leaving the theater – I didn’t hear the question but the response was, “Because they’re co-dependent!”
By Carene Lydia Lopez