PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Offers a Saturday Night Furor

By Harry Haun
14 Oct 2012

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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. 


Madison Dirks
Photo by Monica Simoes

"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."