A writer for Vanity Fair once declared that Lolita was “the only convincing love story of our century,” perhaps because he had not yet seen Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) have spent a lifetime playing games—Humiliate the Host, for example, or Hump the Hostess—verbally whipping each other night after night for decades. “I swear,” Martha tells George, ”If you existed I’d divorce you.” Later, in front of their guests, Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), George asks Martha what she would like to drink: “Rubbing alcohol for you?” But these are more than the petty cruelties of an unhappy couple. Towards the end of the play, Martha sighs, “[He can] make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy.”
This is the paradox at the center of the play: Virginia Woolf is essentially a classic love story, only with a middle-aged couple mired in emotional masochism and self-pity and gasping for happiness. What is most effective about the current revival at the Booth Theatre is that its stars, Mr. Letts and Ms. Morton, genuinely seem to care for each other. There is a tenderness to this production that hits precisely the right note—it would be too easy to drown in the invectives, but here director Pam MacKinnon emphasizes the understanding between George and Martha. Even when they are drawing blood, they can appreciate a good move from the opponent. “Virginia Woolf” is commonly interpreted to be synonymous with “self-knowledge” or “truth,” thus the title can be read: Who’s Afraid of the Truth? So when George beats down Martha by the end, leaving her weeping on the floor, he is committing the most exceptional act of love in his entire marriage; he is ushering in a rare and beautiful honesty. Throughout the play Mr. Letts wears a blue sweater, which at first makes him look like a foul-mouthed Mr. Rogers—but by the end, as he cradles his wife between his knees, there is something of the sweetness of that minister to him.
The real cynicism, then, lies with Nick and Honey, whose unhappiness is buried much deeper. Betty Friedan called it “The Problem That Has No Name”—the women in the ‘sixties who were left at home to cook, clean, and swallow Valium by the fistful. Her schoolgirl giggles are darker than anything Martha can hurl at George, and Ms. Coon handles Honey’s depression very nicely; her lines tend to elicit an instinctive laugh followed by disquietude. This is the academic rock star couple—he’s a biology prodigy, she’s a knockout—with the veneer meticulously stripped away.
The text of Virginia Woolf is perfect—so of course any performance will be something of a letdown; no cast could entirely live up to Albee’s words. I do think, for example, that Ms. Morton does not quite have the body of Martha. She is too skinny and not quite sexy enough. When she walks downstairs after changing and George jokes, “Why, Martha, your Sunday chapel dress!” the pink button-up she is actually wearing doesn’t make sense; it is hardly sultry enough to provoke this reaction, let alone Nick’s drunken, drooling interest. Perhaps my Martha will always be the overweight but irresistible Elizabeth Taylor.
Still, it isn’t really fair to quibble. This production is undoubtedly first-rate. Much has been said about the play’s agelessness—indeed, I was born just a little under twenty-seven years after its premiere and it feels as contemporary and relevant as anything I’ve seen onstage (excepting that awkward, ‘sixties white people dancing). Before the lights dim, we hear Mr. Albee reminding us to turn off our cell phones. This symbolic act of endorsement is appropriate; as far as is possible, Ms. MacKinnon and her cast have earned the right to play the masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?