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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
at the Booth

TATTERED VOWS
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton and Madison Dirks/ Ph: Michael Brosilow

There’s a lot to be afraid of in Virginia Woolf: two complicated, talky roles that have been played by icons. Three long hours of talk and torment. And the sneaking worry that this seminal play will have aged badly, that its battles and bombast will feel dated, that a contemporary cast won’t be able to do justice to what merits are still left to it. But fear not. Though Edward Albee’s dyadic drama of midlife’s failed expectations turned 50 this year, its Broaddway revival by the Steppenwolf Theater shows that the years have stolen none of its power, pathos or punch.
 
To recap what’s by now become familiar territory, George (brilliantly played here by Tracy Letts) is a middle-aged history professor who married the college president’s daughter, Martha (Amy Morton), but who has somehow, either despite or because of this supposed advantage, failed to make much of his career or his life. After an academic party, the two return home late, drunk and disputatious, only to be joined by an up-and-coming young professor, Nick (Madison Dirks), and his vapid wife Honey (Carrie Coon), unwary enough to be lured by their late-night invitation for a nightcap. Carnage ensues as George and Martha go at it, tormenting each other for this uncomfortable new audience’s entertainment, until the newcomers, too, are drawn into the feeding frenzy – after which nobody’s marriage will remain quite the same.
 
It’s juicy material for any actor brave enough to sink his teeth into it, and many actresses especially have torn into it with gusto, from Uta Hagen to Elizabeth Taylor to Kathleen Turner. As the latest in the illustrious lineup, Morton holds her own; her Martha is loud and lewd, but her bullying and baiting betray a profound intimacy with the man she professes to despise. In some of her moments of frustration – as when she tells Nick and Honey about George’s aborted attempt to publish his novel – there’s a twisted kind of love that comes through, suggesting how the two can have stayed together for all these long, unhappy years. Dirks does a respectable job in the thankless role of the arrogant young academic, and Coons is fantastically funny as his wealthy young wife, as alcohol and exhaustion topple her back into guileless, defenseless childhood.
 
But the standout is unequivocally Letts. His cerebral, self-loathing George is the real auteur ere, producing the action on stage, reining in his tempestuous and unpredictable leading lady and managing every catastrophe – even when it requires bringing down still more catastrophe on the scene. Even when he’s at his most heartless – revealing the bleak, bitter truths about his marriage and Martha to the barely comprehending Nick and Honey – it’s less in anger than in sorrow, less in revenge than in an attempt to wrest some kind of peace or at least equilibrium from the night’s destruction.
 
Directed by Pam MacKinnon, the complicated, lengthy play flies by. And while the performances stand on their own merits, it’s George and Martha’s marriage that is the play’s real protagonist, as its depths are slowly revealed through the recounting of its historical highlights and the enactment of its current cruelties. Nick and Honey – even when the fractures in their own marriage are exposed and their pretenses shattered – are never more than bit players, foils to the tormented but true-to-life dynamic of George and Martha’s love story.

 


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