PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Offers a Saturday Night Furor
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of the new Broadway production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
"Satire is what closes on Saturday night," the saying goes, but nobody ever tells you what opens on Saturday night — probably because it's just not done, but it did happen Oct. 13 when Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turned 50 and marked the occasion with a sterling revival by an ace quartet from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
George & Martha & Nick & Honey — all, by this point, Veterans of Domestic Wars — blew in from The Windy City in the forms of Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon, booze-fueled and truth-telling all over the Booth Theatre.
The Booth, freshly refurbished with wood-panel walls, turns out by happy accident to be the perfect place for this play because George and Martha's lived-in, book-lined library on stage (designed by Todd Rosenthal) blends effortlessly into the theatre itself, bringing the audience in for an even more intimate close-up of marital combat.
"When we got in to see it after the renovation, it was, like, 'Whoa! This is more than perfect,'" exclaimed Pam MacKinnon, who refereed — er, directed — the piece. "I was so excited to book the Booth anyway because of its intimacy and the rake of the audience. The audience is tipped in, which is really rare for a Broadway house.
MacKinnon takes this dizzying laugh-and-cry roller-coaster ride at about 90 mph — from Martha's snarling "Jesus H. Christ!" to her tender "I am, George, I am" (in response to the title question) — and, when the three-act, three-hour-and-five-minute main-event came to final, emphatic halt, Edward Albee stepped unsteadily forth to take a bow — cane in hand, escorted by MacKinnon — looking all of his 84 years but properly appreciated. He turned first to the gang of four who did such justice to his words and applauded them, then to the audience and applauded us for our great good taste. Needless to add, it made a poignant, roof-lifting spectacle.
Which was not necessarily a good thing for the print press working the party on a catch-as-catch-can basis, plowing through a choppy, sloshy sea of celebrities and/or humanity to get to the principal players of the evening. Fortunately, there were only four to be had, and only one of them had ever been on Broadway before.
The vet, Morton, bowed here as the dreaded Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which got the 2001 Tony for Best Revival, and returned six years later as the Tony-nominated first-born in an Oklahoma house of hate in August: Osage County, which got the 2007 Tony for Best Play (both productions were Steppenwolf shows).
Letts' Broadway debut wears an asterisk: only as an actor. For his previous visit here — as the author of August: Osage County — he won the Tony and the Pulitzer.
When it was suggested, from the evidence at hand here, he must be the best Pulitzer Prize-winning actor extant, he begged to differ: "I dunno, Sam Shepard's pretty good" (which is as much praise as you can get from an Oklahoman for a Texan).
He has worked Off-Broadway once before — in 2005, playing critic Kenneth Tynan in Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow — but he had to admit the sound of "Broadway actor" was special. "It feels great, and I'm very moved, but I'm very grateful we're beyond the opening because now we can finally settle down and just do the play!"
Usually, it's the vulgar, strident ("I don't bray!") Martha who dominates the proceedings — that's practically a given — but, in this version, Letts' George does it. Physically, the actor seems to have more heft than his predecessors in the part. He never cowers and buckles under from the harpy tongue-lashing, remaining upright and above it all. As a son of academics in real life, Letts knows the manicured turf of college life, and, as an award-winning wordsmith himself, he displays a delicious appreciation of Albee-ese.
"Absolutely," he concurred enthusiastically. "Words are very precious in this play." Not that he always needs words to get his laughs. "Some human behavior is funny on its own, but, essentially, the words do the job for us. He's got a wicked sense of humor, Mr. Albee — and it really runs a gamut, from incredibly smart, erudite material to a couple of dumb jokes. Good playwrights will use every arrow in their quiver to hold everybody's attention.
"I think, in fact, Virginia Woolf has entered our DNA. It's part of our consciousness. It's part of our culture. I think it's reflected in movies and television and other plays. I think it's because of its very dynamic relationships and its peculiar rhythms and its sense of humor. I think it is one of those things that just, over time, becomes absorbed in the bloodstream — and so I have no doubt that Virginia Woolf has been a big influence on my writing. I would imagine every play I've written bears some mark of Virginia Woolf, something in it. It's that important a play in our country.
"When the New York theatre critics gave me the award for August, they asked Mr. Albee to present the award, and he agreed to do it. I was not only surprised and deeply flattered that he would take the time to show up and present the award to me, I have to think that they must have thought there was some kind of throughline between me and him. It was very gratifying, but I'm not fit to tie his shoelaces."
Right from the get-go (the aforementioned "Jesus H. Christ"), he and Morton make an easy-does-it, life-sized attack on the text, which, batted about for half a century, is in our national consciousness — and there's no hesitancy about taking it in overdrive, like an intense game of tennis. The result may be the fastest Virginia Woolf on record.
"We're just fast-talkers, Tracy and I," Morton offered matter-of-factly. The easy familiarity between the two that enables them to ignore the speed limits comes from two decades of professional partnering on stage and screen (eight times as man and wife). That is only three years less than George and Martha's turbulent marriage.
One of the most notable consequences of the fast talk is how conspicuous the amount of liquor being consumed is, as George and Martha "entertain" younger versions of themselves, Nick and Honey, who are uninitiated newbies on campus.
"Tracy counted the number of drinks that go down at the party, but I don't remember how much it was," said Morton. "I do remember the ranking: Nick drinks the most, I come in second, then Honey and finally George. He only has, like, two."
With her hair down or pulled back, she's brings to mind Lauren Bacall at her ball-busting best — and the performance makes you wish Bacall hadn't let this one get away — but also Morton's Martha, alongside Letts' George, seems softer and more accessible than previous Marthas. The illusion isn't deliberate on her part, and she wasn't directed that way. "I just did it the way I would do it — do it like a person."
The trick is in catching a convincing balance between each of the two couples, said MacKinnon. "I know that Amy said early on, 'It doesn't feel like a play. It feels more like scripted improv.' And Tracy described it as a football game: 'Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and you never quite know what kind of yardage you're going to gain, and then, all of a sudden, you're back on your heels.'
"It's a really hard play — very detailed work. We did it two seasons ago for the first time, then we got to marinate it. Madison and Carrie — my Nick and my Honey — they're just exponentially more experienced actors than they were two years ago. That was a huge gift when we went back into rehearsals in Chicago for this."
Dirks said he had no problem showing the opportunistic, warts-and-all side of Nick: "I think if you're going to play a character, you gotta like something about him because you gotta play that person — so you find the truth in him, and you play the truth. Whether you find something that's despicable or likable, you just play the truth of it. That's what I do. Personally, I think he comes off as kind of a bastard."
His main problem on opening night was a table lamp, which he accidentally knocked to the floor, sparks flying, during some second-act flailing-about. "It happens," he shrugged. "We've done the show 200 times, and I've knocked that lamp twice before. That's the first time it has fallen over. I wasn't thinking so much for myself as for Allen Lee Hughes' beautiful, beautiful lighting design. I thought, 'Omigod! He's got lighting cues that depend on that light being on.'" By Act Three, the lamp was again operative. "They had to fix it for the third act because it gets much darker, and certainly George turns off that light at the end of the play. It's a plot point, almost."
As his slim-hipped, label-peeling, brandy-plastered little wife, Coon has a very high old time of it, quite convincingly being three-sheets-to-the-wind for two of the play's three acts. She got there using only one model: She has a relative who "got broken up every Christmas — that's how I learned to play a good drunk on stage."
She came to this role directly from playing a Chekhovian teetotaler. "I just finished Tracy's adaptation of Three Sisters in Chicago. I was Masha, who doesn't drink at all."
Her Broadway debut had her trilling. "I'm trying to take it in. It's overwhelming. There are these incredible people that I admire around all the time, and they tell you what a wonderful job you do. It's just surreal to hear that from those people."
Multi-Tony winners led the big parade of first-nighters — Angela Lansbury, Tommy Tune, Cherry Jones, James Earl Jones — followed by some single Tony winners: Leslie Uggams, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth Ashley and Victoria Clark.
Then: Kimmarie and Dashiell Eaves; Steppenwolf's Ma Joad, Lois Smith, and David Margulies; directors David Esbjornson and David Cromer; The Times' Bruce Weber and Charles Isherwood; new Signature Theatre Company resident playwright David Henry Hwang and his Chinglish star Jennifer Lim; Playbill's Robert Viagas; Michael Feinstein and Terrence Flannery, and Laura Osnes and hubby Nathan Johnson.
Also: Dick Cavett; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo's Arian Moayed, who turns film director in February, shooting "This Island Made Me"; Jon Michael Hill, a Tony nominee for Letts' Superior Donuts; Alan Alda, who was last on Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross — in the upcoming Al Pacino role; Krissy Shields; producer Kenneth Greenblatt, busting his buttons over this one and looking forward to doing the same with Glengarry Glen Ross and Matilda; Andre De Shields; novelist Harry Stein; Steppenwolf actress Sally Murphy, Morton's sister in Letts' August: Osage County; Linda Emond of the last Death of a Salesman; Crystal A. Dickinson; T.R. Knight, famously late of "Grey's Anatomy"; John Leguizamo, the one-man-show himself; Rachel Dratch; playwright Will Eno, whose play, The Realistic Jones, was recently done at Yale Rep with Letts starring in the lead role; Maria Dizzia from Off-Broadway's recent Uncle Vanya by Soho Rep; Sia Furler; Jenna Fischer, and Elizabeth I. McCann, who produced the 2005 Kathleen Turner-Bill Irwin Virginia Woolf.
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