Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a whinefest under the best of circumstances. The four characters reveal their secret sufferings in convoluted party games and end by eviscerating each other's fragile emotional guts in a stupefying alcoholic haze. Despite the entertainment value inherent in such fireworks, when the production is less than first-rate, it's a chore to watch. The Ad Hoc Theatre's new production, though spiked here and there with lively insights and graced by one striking performance, is basically a chore.
George is a history professor at a small eastern college. Locked in a ferociously abusive marriage to Martha, the daughter of the president of the college, he has spent more than twenty years doing battle with the woman he loves. As the lights come up on the action, George and Martha are just returning from the president's house after a long, dreary cocktail party. Martha has invited a young new instructor and his mousy wife over for a nightcap--which extends into the wee hours of the morning and involves the consumption of buckets of booze.
At first Nick and Honey seem like a loving enough pair of newlyweds, but George quickly gets to the bottom of their unlikely union, and it's not a pretty picture. Honey seems at first a harmless dim bulb but eventually reveals herself to be a frightened, spoiled alcoholic protected from the world by her father's ill-gotten gains. Nick is a soulless opportunist cynically engaged in furthering his career at anyone else's expense.
But it's really the George and Martha show. Martha castrates George with every word she sneers. George replies with icy knives of his own, but Martha has better defenses against his wit than he has against her obtuse attacks. Their encounter with Nick and Honey is meant to bring about a kind of catharsis--if not for the audience, then for George and Martha, who, we are supposed to believe, have gone so far in their torments that they've actually reached a new level of understanding.
James Gale gives the one excellent performance of the evening. As George, he shrewdly penetrates the lies and pretensions of the other characters. His pacing and phrasing are superb and his emotional range ample; every wince at Martha's obnoxious verbal stabs reveals some new tenderness around the wounds George carries inside him. As George gets drunker and his anger more pointed, Gale allows him to seethe and smolder and spend his spite like a miser spends his gold: sparingly, but with great efficiency. Moreover, he's the only believable drunk on the stage.
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But Gale can't carry the show by himself. Katharine Guthrie gets Martha's meanness right, but that's about it. She continually rants rather than alternating her axe-wielding harangues with sly innuendo. While Martha is not a subtle character, she has to be more than merely irritating. It is imperative that the viewer pity her even more than George in the end, but Guthrie's Martha is never for an instant the object of our compassion.
Shawn Sherwood takes on the thankless role of Nick, a jerk who inexplicably sticks around to swallow the abuse that George and Martha dish out. Neither Sherwood nor director Martin McGovern wring out the little juice there is in Nick--the petty emotions, the layers of selfishness and contempt for others we ought to see in him. Kelly Douglass's Honey is likewise flat enough to shove under a door. Bouncing between a tendency to overdo the inebriation scenes or disappear into the furniture, Douglass adds no recognizable humanity to an already insipid character.
Virginia Woolf is a tough play to do well, but it ought to move quickly, surprising the audience with sudden revelations about these miserable fools. As brilliant as the language sometimes is, it can seem merely pretentious unless handled with consummate acting skill. The first few times I saw it--as a college student back in the Seventies--the story seemed likely enough in a nasty, political kind of way. I knew enough screwed-up professors and their damaged wives to believe it. But all those marriages ended in divorce--not endless verbal jousting matches squeezed in between drinking binges.
Today Albee's play seems dated, trapped in the psychological assumptions of another era, and horrendously self-indulgent. Unfortunately, so is this production.