As most theatergoers know, any production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a bit of a trip into a lion’s den. And yet, in director Pam MacKinnon’s superb new production at the Booth Theatre, the journey sparks with not just robust, feral intensity, but also a remarkably moving sensitivity.
The careful calibration of MacKinnon’s staging is evident from the outset as George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) stumble drunkenly into their comfortably disheveled, book-strewn home (scenic design by Todd Rosenthal), near the university where George teaches history and where Martha’s father is president. During their bitchy banter about a line from an old Bette Davis film, she growls at her spouse and dismissively calls him a “Cluck.”
But even as Morton bitterly slurs the gibe, she instills it with a warmth that makes it almost a term of endearment. Such is the yin and yang of this couple’s life together, a shared existence sadly and corrosively weighed down by both their individual, and shared, disappointments, chiefly George’s failure to move beyond the title of associate professor.
The extent to which George and Martha’s life has disintegrated – and coalesced – into a hostile, yet curiously caring, partnership, becomes only too evident once the younger Nick (Madison Dirks), a new biology professor at the school, and his wife Honey (Carrie Coon), have arrived on the scene for what becomes a booze-soaked evening of “game-playing.” And even as the truths about George and Martha are revealed, so too are the ugly ones about Nick and Honey, who have yet to cope with the harsh realities of their marriage, and who have the potential to metamorphose into their acerbically abusive hosts.
It’s not just in the play’s opening moments that Letts and Morton capture the complex realities that lie underneath the vitriol hurled by George and Martha. Throughout, both deliver performances that are a marvelous balance of blistering rage and deep compassion that’s accompanied by the rigor of two individuals steeped in academics. And repeatedly their exceptional work can induce laughter, while also provoking sadness and perhaps even a little fear, as George and Martha’s battles and maneuvering escalate.
One early moment that encapsulates the actors’ gorgeously nuanced turns comes while George metaphorically tweaks Nick’s nose about the potential harm to be had by the science of genetic engineering. During this sequence, Letts’ turn sparkles with a kind of cerebral élan that’s positively seductive, and it’s not surprising to find Morton’s imperious, yet masterfully earthy, Martha gazing on her husband with a mixture of pride and long-forgotten admiration as he delivers his impromptu sarcastic lecture.
Later, when Martha is momentarily without pawns or combatants, Morton’s work proves remarkably delicate, and it’s difficult to not perceive this sometime harridan as just a sad, lonely housewife. And, as the play reaches its conclusion, Letts brings a level of compassion to the stage that startles.
Such emotional exactness can also be found in Dirks’ turn, which captivates as the almost cloyingly good-mannered Nick descends to George and Martha’s level, if not below. And while Coon displays a flair for physical comedy, she also renders a portrait of a nascent alcoholic that is sadly distressing; Just one further example of the terrific emotional tension that courses through this exceptional revival.