Living room absurdism

It may be difficult to comprehend today just how shocking Edward Albee’s drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was when it premiered in October 1962, the same week that the Cuban missile crisis began. While the atomic fireworks the world feared never happened, Albee’s three-act, three-hour-plus masterpiece detonated an explosion that rocked American culture to its core. As Invictus Theatre Company’s blistering new production proves, the 60-year-old play still sizzles, resonating on levels emotional, political, and philosophical.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Through 6/12: Mon and Thu-Sat 7 PM, Sun 3 PM; Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, invictustheatreco.com, $31 (students/seniors $26).

In a fall 1962 New York theater season whose most impressive openings seemed to be British imports—the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe and the musical Stop the World–I Want to Get OffWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was as American as apple pie, even if that pie was baked in bourbon and tinged in acid. At a time when Broadway’s main purpose seemed to be to placate its stereotypical audience of the “tired businessman” and his wife, Virginia Woolf vivisected middle-aged marital dysfunction. Another Broadway hit of the same season, the coyly cloying comedy Never Too Late by Sumner Arthur Long, concerned a 50-ish wife who unexpectedly becomes pregnant by her 60-ish husband. But—SPOILER ALERT—Virginia Woolf focused on a couple whose inability to conceive after 23 years of wedlock has led them to invent an imaginary son, and eventually to “kill” him.

And then there was Albee’s taboo-breaking language—harsh, vulgar, sometimes obscene. Audiences had never heard a wife yell “Screw you!” at her husband on a Broadway stage before. Nor had they watched a married woman showily seduce another man in front of her husband—whose response is to shrug off the taunt and, instead, bury his nose in a history book about the fall of Western civilization. Virginia Woolf—the “mainstream” debut of a young avant-garde playwright best known at the time for a handful of one-acts produced in Europe and off-Broadway—won the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards. But it was denied the theater establishment’s most prestigious honor—the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—because the Pulitzer board objected to its profanity and sexual content. (Albee’s next Broadway play, the 1966 A Delicate Balance, did receive a Pulitzer—an accolade interpreted by many as a belated apology for the earlier shortsighted slight.)

There’s more to Albee’s text than swear words, of course. This is a work rich in heightened language, ranging from long, elegiac monologues—dreamy storytelling arias—to terse exchanges that recall the minimalist precision of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. And the play assumes a wide range of cultural literacy on the part of its audience. References abound, ranging from classical allusions (the Punic Wars) to an obscure Bette Davis film (the 1949 Beyond the Forest), whose seemingly trivial mention is actually a vital clue to the script’s theme of infanticide.

And then, of course, there’s Virginia Woolf herself—the proto-feminist pre-World War II British writer whose lifelong battle with mental illness led her to commit suicide in 1941. Reputedly, Albee came across the phrase “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf”—a joking nod to Walt Disney’s 1933 cartoon Three Little Pigs—scrawled on the wall of a Greenwich Village saloon. For Disney, “the Big Bad Wolf” was a metaphor for the Great Depression; for Albee, Virginia Woolf represents angst on a deeper, more existential plane.

Virginia Woolf‘s ferocious intensity still packs a wallop. Indeed, the in-your-face intimacy of Invictus’s storefront staging brings out the best in Albee’s play. Beautifully directed by Charles Askenaizer, the play is acted by a first-rate foursome, who engage the script’s rhythms and dynamics with the sensitivity of a finely tuned string quartet playing one of Paul Hindemith or Elliott Carter’s jaggedly lyrical compositions.

The cello and violin in this dissonant yet exquisite chamber work are George and Martha. He’s 46, six years younger than Martha, and a history teacher at the small New England college run by her father. They are smart and often quite witty. She drinks, and he keeps her company. Their marriage is codependent and abusive. George and Martha have stayed together for the sake of “the kid”—the make-believe son whose “existence” Martha must not mention to anyone outside their bleak, bitter marriage. Not even on the Saturday night this play takes place—the eve of the son’s anticipated homecoming for his 21st birthday. (And yes, “George and Martha” is an allusion to the Washingtons, and the make-believe son a symbol of the myth of “the American dream.”)

Enter the violins: Nick and Honey, both in their 20s—late-night guests whom Martha has invited over for a nightcap after a faculty soiree. Nick’s a new faculty member in the science department; Honey’s his trophy bride. They got married because they thought she was pregnant; it turned out she wasn’t, but like George and Martha they stayed together. A biologist by training, Nick is a rising star in the field of genetic engineering—cloning. In 1962, cloning was indeed a hot topic in academic circles, young heterosexual couples did get married because the woman got pregnant, and “faculty wives” like Martha and Honey were judged on their teacher-husbands’ reputations. Nick the biologist is the wave of the future; George the historian, like Western civilization, is in decline. (One of Martha’s nastiest digs at George concerns his “associate professor’s salary.”)

Two couples; one small, book-cluttered living room (impressive scenic and props design by Kevin Rolfs); copious amounts of alcohol. Party games ensue, as George and Nick—sexual rivals, the past and the future—size up each other, and each other’s wives. As the three-hour play progresses in real time, secrets are bared and facades are peeled away. Illusions are destroyed—but not people. As Martin Esslin wrote in his seminal 1961 text The Theatre of the Absurd: “Theatre of the Absurd does not reflect despair . . . but expresses modern man’s endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives . . . [and] to free him from illusions that are bound to cause maladjustment and disappointment. For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions—and to laugh at it.” 

Virginia Woolf—harrowing but also very funny—is Theater of the Absurd couched in the trappings of realist domestic drama: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit mixed with William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, with perhaps a bit of Elliott Nugent and James Thurber’s The Male Animal tossed in for good measure.

Andrea Uppling as Martha is visibly too young for the 52-year-old character she plays, but she brings to life every twist and turn of Martha’s imbalanced energy—the rowdy humor, the flagrant sexuality, the soul-deep frustration that drives her raging attacks on George, the bottomless depression that she vainly tries to self-medicate with booze. Uppling’s Martha engages our compassion with her pain even as she repels us with her behavior. James Turano’s rumpled George, weary from years of suppressing his own emotional needs in order to keep Martha afloat, is remarkable to watch as he builds himself up to meet the crisis that has inevitably come.

Keenan Odenkirk is a visually perfect Nick—the blond, muscular Aryan archetype that Albee envisioned. And he beautifully projects the opportunistic personality that Albee had in mind as well: shallow and ambitious, cunning and calculating. As Honey, Rachel Livingston is an Ibsen-esque doll-wife, with her sing-songy laugh and mousy manner of nibbling at the cocktail nuts on the coffee table. But, like Uppling, she reveals the pain and frustration of a woman trapped in the “feminine mystique,” to use the term coined by feminist writer Betty Friedan in her 1963 book analyzing the dissatisfaction and voicelessness of women in post-World War II America.

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