NEW YORK - In an unusual throwback to how Broadway operated when Edward Albee's booze-soaked George and Martha first prowled the boards in 1962, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's naturalistic, emotionally intense, Chicago-style take on “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened here in one fell swoop Saturday night with critics, celebrities and Steppenwolf supporters all showing up together in the Booth Theatre for a Broadway transfer that came nearly two years after Pam MacKinnon's production originated in Chicago. The evening — chosen because it was 50 years to the day since the play's Broadway debut — concluded with the masterwork's 84-year-old author taking the stage with the original Steppenwolf cast: Amy Morton, Madison Dirks, Carrie Coon and, most notably, Tracy Letts, offering the performance that dominates this production and who, aptly enough, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, just like Albee.
To some degree, the mode of opening was a shrewd marketing device. That said, though, it shrewdly linked this rich, deeply respectful and uncluttered production with its famously exacting author, whose recorded voice is set to admonish theatergoers to turn off their cellphones for as long as this revival runs.
Albee, who is recovering from heart surgery, looked unsteady as he came out on the stage for the curtain call, reminding the assembled both of the mortality of one of America's greatest living playwrights and, for those doing the math, the scale of his 1962 achievement, when, as an unmarried 34-year-old, he was so able to probe the depths of middle-age despair and the existentially terrifying traps of married life.
MacKinnon's production, which essentially reclaims the work from its post-Hollywood identity — of a vehicle for a diva dangling on the edge and her handsome, self-loathing husband — is an ideal way to pay tribute to Albee. It banishes the image of Elizabeth Taylor (or even Kathleen Turner) as Martha and substitutes Morton's more vulnerable, down-to-earth characterization of the daughter of a college president and a woman who plays games, lashes out and ties herself in knots, but all in the service of keeping a lid on the dangerously disappointed, and thus dangerously destructive, guy she married and clearly still loves.
One might question whether Morton, whose Martha feels more Midwestern than New England, captures the ease and confidence of a hyperarticulate woman who has lived around money and power all her life. Especially in the bigger Broadway theater (although the Booth is reasonably intimate), the lack of confidently embraced artifice will be an issue for some. And there may be Broadway theatergoers, as was the case in Chicago, for whom MacKinnon's production will lack the marital fireworks, and Liza-esque theatrics they thought they were paying for at the box office. But while the then-daring sexual tensions may have sold the play in its original heyday, the payoff is smaller in an era of Lindsay Lohan-style tabloid glares and the ubiquity of marriages melting down in public. And there can be no question that this production, staged on a modestly scaled and thus self-effacing set from Todd Rosenthal and with carefully muted and thus unexpected costumes from Nan Cibula-Jenkins, seems to cut away much of the detritus that has congealed on top of this play these last five decades. No wonder Albee likes it; he has his play back.
And then some. For Morton and Letts together convey, better than any of the other actors I've seen in this familiar drama, essentially the smallness of George and Martha's suffocating little republic, a dominion that can never reach beyond themselves. Morton makes you care deeply for Martha, making you feel what you feel when you watch any friend trying to deal with a passive-aggressive spouse. And by implying so strongly that George cannot help the way he is and that the way he is can and does change with but a moment's notice, Letts sharpens the play's knife, making George and Martha far more dangerous to their young houseguests Nick and Honey, who here must deal with a couple who cannot help but hurt them because they, themselves, need to survive.
There are other potent moments. Watching Letts' George interact with Dirks' aptly irritating, cheerfully assured Nick just after the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, one is struck anew by how brilliantly Albee caught the raw hostility older men can have for those they view as younger usurpers, even if they couch it in benign charm and experiential warmth.
Thanks in no small part to MacKinnon's carefully calibrated direction, you at once see the danger that George poses to Nick, even as you realize that one good punch from a virile 28-year-old would knock Letts' George to the floor, even if he would not stop trash-talking from the floor. That dichotomy, that mix of force and vulnerability, is at the heart of Letts' brilliant performance. The actor-playwright here has a forged a character who somehow seems to be able to stand outside himself, which means that it feels like you are watching not an actor playing a character, but an actor playing a character playing a character, and horrifying his creator at every level.
As was the case in Chicago, Coon offers a beautifully studied Honey. In Coon's jar crouches a young woman with an innate sense of the deeply dangerous stakes of the truth-telling games that are suddenly unfolding around her but a complete lack of equipment and training in how to handle them.
Coon makes very clear the confusion caused when Honey's sweet illusions tumble, but she also presents us with a natural survivor. Her husband may feel the need to embarrass himself with his hostess, but this Honey knows that sometimes it's better just to lock the bathroom door and throw up. In Albee's remarkably bleak landscape, that's about all the human progress we can expect.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" plays at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. For more information, visit virginiawoolfbroadway.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye