It turns out that the hit play of the current Fall/Winter Broadway season is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This play premiered 50 years ago – October 13, 1962 – on a rainy Saturday night. Fifty years later, Saturday, October 13, 2012 a major Steppenwolf production of the play opened at the Booth Theater. Must be that 13 is a lucky number for Albee in that at this opening, it was almost as if the play were brand new again.
Most reviewers said it seemed to be more pertinent than ever. When the playwright himself appeared on stage at curtain call opening night along with the four actors thunderous applause followed. There have been other revivals of “Virginia Woolf” with stars such as Kathleen Turner and Colleen Dewhurst who both dominated the play as Martha as had the great Uta Hagen in l962. Naturally, there are the multitudes who can never forget the dynamic film performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who many thought were simply acting out their own crazy up and down boozy relationship. Albee had wanted Bette Davis to play the movie part; nevertheless it was Taylor who went home with her second best actress Academy Award. Watching the film today, it is amazing to see these two giants going at one another’s throats, though to my own mind, Uta Hagen will always be the Martha of them all.
In this remarkable production starring Tracy Letts as George and Amy Morton as Martha, it’s as if somehow the roles had been reversed with George taking on a more dogmatic and dominant position in the thwarted desperate relationship with Martha. Morton, in her interpretation, brings forth a softer and more feminine approach to the character. Guess what? It just happens to work for her like a charm helping to clarify the play. Tracy Letts who is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Broadway play August: Osage County (also a Steppenwolf production) gives a stunning performance that should not be missed by anyone seriously interested in the theater. He literally sweeps the other characters away as if they were caught in a tremendous, raging and powerful storm. Yet the young couple, Nick and Honey, who are being seduced into the brutal games of the older duo manage to hold their own. The work here of Carrie Coon (Honey) and the sexy Madison Dirks is just perfection.
By the end of the three acts of Albee’s masterwork when George in a wispy voice sings, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf…” (sung to the melody of the Depression era anthem from the Disney cartoon “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”) to a trembling fearful Martha who replies, “I…am…George, I…am…” a hush descends on the audience. The storm has passed but what a storm – and the audience is left only to stand up applauding and cheering.
I overheard a couple in the lobby between acts discussing the subject of alcoholism since the characters acting out their parlor games are fueled with glass after glass of whiskey. The message, it seems, is to admit to oneself ‘yes, I am afraid!’
The ads and posters have the author’s name and the title of the play as a label on a bottle of what looks like some kind of Club Bourbon or 4 Roses Blended Whiskey. In the case of this play, the drinking opens up all that has been festering underneath and it was time as the games are played out to tell the truth. The play has been extended to February 24.
ZOOLOGICAL EXTRA – I recently attended the Actors Studio Playwrights and Directors Unit to see The Zoo Story, Edward Albee’s first play originally produced in Berlin in l959 and later off Broadway in New York in l960 by Richard Barr at the Provincetown Playhouse starring the incredible George Maharis.
Prior to this commercial production, The Zoo Story was read at the Actors Studio in 1959 directed by John Stix with Lou Antonio as the lost Jerry and Sheppard Strudwick as Peter. After the reading, Norman Mailer who was in the audience declared it “the best fucking one-act play I’ve ever seen.”
The November 2012 reading I attended featuring Joe Maruzzo as Jerry and David Dempsey directed by Ed Setrakian is considered now by the participants to be a work-in-progress. Another hope is that this could become a fully realized legitimate production. A few years ago at a Theater for the New City fundraiser I saw a full reading of The Zoo Story with actor Tim Robbins as Jerry and Edward Albee as Peter. I think of it today almost as a kind of Existential passion play. I should add that it was this play that opened up a revolution of young playwrights, including myself, who wrote mostly one-act plays for a new theater movement instigated by Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart called ‘off-off Broadway’.
Robert Heide was a member of the Albee/Barr Playwrights Unit at the Van Dam Theater, wrote plays for the Caffe Cino and La Mama and is a current member of the Actors Studio Playwrights and Directors Unit.