A Review

Fun & Games With George & Martha

By R. J. Donovan

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a brutal psychological fencing match. A disturbing study in marital dysfunction, the three-act play can be almost difficult to watch.

Middle-aged couple George and Martha have invited a younger couple in for drinks. The setting is their New England home on the campus of the local college. George teaches in the history department. Martha, his wife, is daughter of the president of the college.

Their guests are Nick and Honey. Nick is new in the science department and Honey is his mousy, uptight wife.

The four have already attended a faculty party earlier in the evening. However, Martha’s Daddy has encouraged George and Martha to make nice with the newcomers. So despite the late hour, and the amount of liquor already consumed, Nick and Honey arrive. Little do they know that the party is just about to begin.

Martha is a vulgar, boozy, braying, shrew, constantly berating her husband. George, seemingly without a spine, knuckles under to his wife’s scathing insults only to turn the tables and ultimately wallop his opponent.

Nick, initially perceived as the hunky all-American jock, is eventually revealed to be a shallow, impotent ass. Despite his preening confidence, he is soon out of his league in dealing with the twisted mind games of his hosts. Slim-hipped Honey, meanwhile, proves to have a few secrets of her own.

In an exclusive pre-Broadway run at The Wilbur Theatre, this revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” stars Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin (left).

The actors are a valid match for each other. But while Turner may have more immediately identifiable credits with the general audience, it’s Irwin who provides the chills in this production.

George and Martha’s dysfunctional relationship relies on various levels of illusion. As they circle one another engaging in a no-holds-barred match of advance and retreat, advance and retreat, their guests shift uneasily. Are the barbs and vile accusations based on truth? Or are they simply engaging in a sadomasochistic game of betrayal, humiliation and torment. And do their actions actually provide a perverse pleasure?

Many people may be familiar with “Virginia Woolf” because of the gritty 1966 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The stage play actually offers a good deal of humor. And here again, it’s Irwin who scores most heavily. His physical stance and mannerisms are exacting, he has a wonderful flair for Albee’s language and his comic timing is expert.

As Nick, David Harbour starts out as the swaggering, fair-haired boy, only to suffer the slings and arrows of his warped hosts. Harbour has the preening down pat, and his fall from his own pedestal is both convincing and heartfelt. As well, he and Irwin have a particularly interesting exchange while Martha and Honey are off in the bathroom.

Mireille Enos (left, with Harbour) is Honey, which at first appears to be a rather thankless role. She says very little and what she does say is tossed off in an empty-headed way. However, the more Honey drinks, the more her character becomes truly aware. Enos does a nice job in her downward spiral until Honey and Nick wind up raw and defeated.

Trapped in their own unique relationship, George and Martha ultimately love one another and need one another. And one gets the feeling that the evening they have just shared is not all that unique. It’s probably been played out many times in many forms for many unsuspecting guests.

And with hosts like George and Martha, who needs enemies.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is at The Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street in Boston, through March 6. For information, call 617-931-2787.

Production photos: Carol Rosegg

-- OnStage Boston


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