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Drunken Masters

Liquor Is Quicker But Words Are Deadly in This Volatile Contemporary Classic

Andrew Weems surveys the wreckage with Deborah Hedwall.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/5/2008

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee

Through Nov. 30 at Center Stage

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shouldn't be blamed for all the bad plays it inspired. When the show became a Broadway hit in 1962 and then a successful movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966, a whole generation of hack playwrights decided that all one needed for a bold, anti-establishment drama was to have people insult one another for three hours. As if that were all that Albee had done.

But when you see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its magnificent new production at Center Stage, this 46-year-old play is nothing like its caricature. Yes, a wealth of ugly, booze-fueled insults are slung back and forth, but there's much more to the show than that. There's a surprising number of laugh-out-loud funny moments, especially in the first act, and some heartbreakingly sad moments as well, especially in the third. Above all, there's the brilliant writing--not only in the inspired wordplay of puns, allusions, and double meanings, but also in the way artifice, in the form of both party games and literary fiction, is used to distort and ultimately reveal reality.

Director Ethan McSweeny and set designer Lee Savage, both imported for the first time from New York, forego Center Stage's frequent weakness for gimmicky concepts and gimmicky sets. There are no giant picture frames or circus props to underline the artifice, no boxing rings or battle trenches to emphasize the coming combat.

Instead, the thrust stage in the theater's upstairs is presented as a comfortable, if somewhat shabby, living room in a New England college professor's home in 1962. Life and National Geographic magazines spill off the tables onto the parquet floor; African masks and an abstract painting hang next to conservative curtains and lamps.

This naturalism is important, for Albee was trying to fuse the Theater of the Absurd with the conventional, well-made drama--much as his contemporary Harold Pinter was doing in England. Albee was trying to prove that you didn't have to change your characters into rhinoceroses, as Eugene Ionecso did, or into clowns stranded by a blasted tree in a wasteland, as Samuel Beckett did, to point out the absurdity of modern life. There was plenty of absurdity in a professor's parlor if you just knew when to peek in. And if you compare Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Pinter's very similar Homecoming of 1964, you'll realize that Albee did a much better job of making the absurd seem realistic in the milieu of the dysfunctional family.

Stumbling into this New England living room are George and Martha, a 46-year-old history professor and his 52-year-old wife, the daughter of the college's president. It's 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and they're just returning from her father's welcoming party for the new faculty. George (Andrew Weems), a short shlump of a man with thinning hair, sagging jowls, and a cheap brown blazer, just wants to go to bed. But Martha (Deborah Hedwall), a buxom, blowsy woman with a fiery-red perm and a stylish tan dress, announces that she has invited the good-looking young teacher Nick (Erik Heger) and his wife, Honey (Leah Curney), over for drinks.

All four of them are already tipsy, and they keep gulping liquor as the play makes its way toward dawn. George and Martha prod at each other and soon their guests with the kind of teasing that's hard to object to because the teasers are "just kidding." Weems and Hedwall are exceptionally adroit at walking the tightrope between the humorous and the vicious; they both have that hearty, contagious party spirit that disarms the audience as well as the guests and tricks us into laughing at lines that carry a hidden barb. All of us except Honey, that is, for she seems tone-deaf to subtext and giggles as if these were the jokes of children. And that's funny and creepy, too, in its own way.

George goes so far as to describe the teasing as a kind of game, with its own rules and scoring, that his wife and he like to play. Soon we begin to suspect that the terrible accusations they make about each other--dead parents, alienated children, tawdry affairs, professional failures--might not be truths but merely moves in the game. And then we realize that theater is the same kind of game, where things are invented to score points according to the rules. This in no way prevents theater from getting at an emotional truth--and it doesn't prevent George and Martha from getting at a similar truth through their twisted games of "Humiliate the Host," "Hump the Hostess," and "Get the Guests."

As the alcohol keeps flowing, the sugar coating dissolves and the barbs come out into the open. A scene will build to a furious climax; metaphoric blood is drawn, and then the tension recedes. In these calm intervals, two of the characters will be left alone to bond; trust is built and secrets shared. But those secrets are soon turned into weapons, and the next scene builds to another climax. Albee has created a push-and-pull, rising-and-falling rhythm for the show, always moving the story steadily forward, and this terrific cast sucks us in during each confidential lull and then knocks us over with each new climax.

As Martha, Hedwall is a force of nature, dominating the stage with her "braying" voice and seedy sexuality, leaving no doubt that her character could overwhelm anyone by sheer force of will. But Hedwall also provides telling glimpses of the secret wounds that Martha's monster act is designed to protect. Weems isn't as showy as Hedwall, but he's every bit as good. Every humiliation that George suffers registers in Weems' voice and body language. When he counterattacks his wife, Weems does so not by matching her ferocity but with a weasely sneakiness. These are two of the best performances you will ever see on a Baltimore stage.

It's a long show, about 195 minutes, but that doesn't justify McSweeny cutting Honey's big scene at the end of Act 2. Nonetheless, when we get to the final act, when Albee has gone from comic teasing to brutal fighting to licking of the wounds, when Hedwall and Weems find themselves exhausted on the couch, still joined by animosity if not love, by fiction if not truth, we find ourselves reinvigorated. For we have recognized the realism within the absurdity, the high stakes of mere games and fictions, and the connections that people make in spite of themselves.

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