Before a select group of journalists, and with a skeletal version of the play's set as their backdrop, playwright Edward Albee, director Anthony Page and cast members Kathleen Turner, Bill Irwin, David Harbour and Mireille Enos sat in a row of chairs.
"As Shakespeare once said, 'Once more into the breech,'" said Albee, by way of greeting. The production of the monumental work will be the first in New York since 1976, nearly three decades ago, and the third Broadway mounting altogether. Albee's comment wasn't the only time The Bard was invoked. Irwin—who is playing the long-suffering George, husband of the ferocious Martha—recalled that Albee told him that after playing George the only role that would tax him more is Hamlet.
"What I actually said," retorted Albee, a notorious stickler where language is concerned, "was that, with the possible exception of Hamlet, you should now be up to handling any other role."
Irwin conceded, then finished his point. Woolf, like Hamlet is "done all over the world. I felt like part of a great company of actors."
Turner, meanwhile, was less concerned with the family of Thespis. "I don't really think of other [Marthas]," she said to considerable laughter. "I read this play in college when I was 20 and I said, 'When I'm 50, I'll play Martha.' And in fact, the week I turned 50, they said yes, you can play it. So I have assiduously avoided seeing any other performance." Hadn't Turner gone back to the 1966 Mike Nichols movie as part of her research?, the actress was asked. "Nooooooooo," she replied, with finality. "Now," observed Albee, "had the movie been made with the cast that I wanted, it might have been a movie worth seeing." And what was that cast? "Bette Davis and James Mason."
Turner and Irwin first played the parts together in a private reading arranged by Albee. Anthony Page remembered the drama, and the playwright, coming to life that night. "Edward's nostrils started to flare like a horse," said Page.
Continued Irwin: "After we read the play, a stricken agent called me back and said, 'He wants you and Kathleen to do it!' There were no days of talking."
Albee knew what he was doing. The dramatist had been impressed with Irwin's performance in The Goat on Broadway, and had been impressed with his work in Beckett (Albee's favorite playwright). As for Turner: "This one had played Tallulah Bankhead," he said, referring to the solo show Tallulah in which Turner had toured during 2000 and 2001. "I thought if you can play someone who's larger than life like Tallulah, you can play Martha. I felt I was in very good hands." (Albee is in a good position to judge Turner's portrayal; he and Bankhead frequently played bridge together.)
Irwin, who has been lionized for his work as a silent clown, is aware that his being cast as George caught some observers off guard. "I like to think I'm the right guy for the role, though also I imagine I'm a surprising choice," he said. He then pointed out that, "Edward has written late in the play for George a line about having a broken back and walking like a clown."
Turner elaborated on Irwin's comment. "One of the things we've been exploring that might defy expectations is the comedy," she said, adding in her gravelly deadpan: "We're both funny."
"The text is extremely full of not just primary gags, but secondary and tertiary jokes," said Irwin, "if I may use that term." He glanced at Albee, who smiled and muttered with mock fierceness, "I'll get you."
Harbour and Enos, the younger married couple in the play, mostly yielded the floor to their elders. But afterwards Enos, the last member of the cast to be named, noted that she and Harbour were friends and colleagues of six years' standing (and were actually, briefly, a couple themselves).
"Way back years ago," Enos related, "David and I were hanging out one night and we pulled the play off the shelf and sat up late into the night reading all of the roles together. The idea that now we're actually doing this play together is pretty amazing."
The gathered reporters may have been some of the last to hear Turner talk at length. She said she'll be arming herself with a notepad during her hours off stage. "I will be quiet a great deal of the time. I have to. It's like being an athlete in training. Everything you do goes toward that performance." And once on stage, she doesn't plan on being the only one put through the paces. "One of the extraordinary things about the theatre is you make the audience work also. And we'll make them work. "