David Harbour and Mireille Enos are superb as Nick and Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
It may not sound like a whole lot of fun to be baited and manipulated in front of thousands of people each week, but the fun factor rises sharply when this is not actually happening to you but to the character you're portraying in a truly great piece of theater, in a production that has received rave reviews and has audiences buzzing. Playing opposite the phenomenal Martha and George of Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, Enos and Harbour more than hold their own in Virginia Woolf, which is not surprising when you read their résumés. Both appeared in the highly praised 2001 Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. Harbour has been seen Off-Broadway in Between Us, Fifth of July, A Bad Friend, Twelfth Night, and Two Noble Kinsmen, while Enos's credits include Right You Are with the National Actors Theatre, The Castle with the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, and regional stagings of Mourning Becomes Electra and several Shakespeare plays -- not to mention her role of Kate Keller in the production of The Miracle Worker, starring Hilary Swank, that was supposed to come to Broadway in 2003 but closed out of town.
I had the good fortune to meet with these young actors on one of the first warm-weather days that New Yorkers experienced this spring, so we had our interview in the alley leading to the stage door of the Longacre Theatre, where Virginia Woolf is ensconced for what's likely to be a long run.
THEATERMANIA: Well, guys, the Longacre isn't exactly the house of hits. Congratulations on bringing one to this theater.
MIREILLE ENOS: I didn't know that.
DAVID HARBOUR: Yeah, Kenny the carpenter told me that they haven't had a hit like this in a long while.
TM: And you're right across the street from Doubt. That hardly ever happens anymore: two big hit, non-musical plays on the same street.
DH: But Doubt has a much better marquee than we do -- flashing lights and everything. We're old-school.
TM: Maybe there will be flashing lights if there's ever a musical version of Virginia Woolf.
DH: Yes! We decided that Douglas Sills and Kristin Chenoweth would play our parts in the musical. In the second act, Honey will have a song about how she loves brandy. It's gonna be great!
TM: It seems to me that, over the past few years, Albee has been more forthcoming in talking to the press about his plays. Did he give you a lot of answers in regard to the back stories of Nick and Honey?
ME: Well, yes. Anytime we had questions, he was ready to answer them. But I actually feel like their back stories are in the text of the play -- the history about why they got married, Honey's father and all that. It's pretty clearly mapped out.
DH: [Albee] did give us a lot of back story about the party that occurs right before the play begins -- how many drinks they had , what occurred at the party, things like that.
TM: Some big cuts in the text have been made for this production. How did that affect what you do onstage?
ME: One of the major cuts is the last scene in the second act, which actually reveals a secret about Honey: that she has been self-inducing miscarriages. It's kind of a huge piece of information to lose from the play but, ultimately, I think the cut makes Honey more sympathetic.
DH: The thing about this play is that any cut that you make is like amputating a good limb; the problem is there are just too many limbs. Cutting helps a lot with momentum but, unfortunately, you lose some great stuff. Towards the end [of the rehearsal period], Albee was ruthless -- not in a bad way, in a very good way -- and he sort of lopped off big sections instead of filleting things out.
TM: I imagine he found that very difficult to do.
DH: That's an understatement. Actually, we begged and pleaded for cuts -- against our better natures, in a sense. I love this play. I think it's beautiful all the way through. But because of the need for momentum and the need for us to tighten it to three hours, things had to go.
ME: We got some of the final cuts during the last week before we opened here in New York. Days before.
TM: The original production of Virginia Woolf was a long time ago, but the movie version is quite famous and readily accessible. Did that give you pause in taking on your roles?
ME: Honestly, no. The live version, just in the fact that it is live, is so different from the film. For one thing, the film doesn't really have the humor of the play. When there's a live audience, you can deal with that so much more, and you can build a character moment by moment.
DH: I think we took our lead from Kathleen and Bill in that their takes on the characters are so different from Richard Burton's and Elizabeth Taylor's. In the film, Burton is such an imposing figure. I always felt that he dwarfs George Segal as Nick. The interesting thing about Bill and me is that I'm so much bigger than him; he's kind of this tiny guy with a quick wit, and I think that adds a whole new layer to the relationship.
TM: I'd like to talk a little bit about your careers before Virginia Woolf. Was The Invention of Love the first time you worked together?
DH: No, we were both understudies in The Time of the Cuckoo [at Lincoln Center]. We understudied the young couple, played by Adam Tracy and Ana Reeder.
TM: Was The Invention of Love a good experience?
DH: Frankly, I was terrified. I was 25 and it was my first Broadway show. It was such a big deal, such a big play. To have Stoppard in the room with his powerful intellect and powerful personality and powerful opinions, and to have all those great actors there -- I was very scared throughout the whole thing. But, ultimately, I think it was a beautiful production. Jack O'Brien is an extremely gracious, charming director. It's difficult not to fall in love with him.
ME: With a play like Virginia Woolf, where you have only four characters, you have such liberty to play around in the rehearsal room. It was different with The Invention of Love, but it was amazing to be around those tremendous actors and to listen to those words every night.
TM: Mireille, I have to bring up The Miracle Worker. What can you say about it?
ME: You know, it was so sad. Marianne Elliott, the director, was one of the very best directors I've ever worked with. Hilary [Swank] was so fantastic, so hard working, and the little girl who played Helen was wonderful. From my perspective, we were all pouring our hearts and souls into the play and it was coming along -- but then came the war, and ticket sales dropped. Also, there were some artistic differences between the director and the producer. One of the final nails in the coffin was that Arthur Penn, the original director of the play, came to see a performance. Of course, our production was wildly different from his, and his opinion was that it wouldn't do. He's still a powerful man, so his word was listened to. I was heartbroken. That show was a love story between the cast and the play.
DH: I had a friend come see it last night, and she said she felt an amazing energy in the theater. People are excited to be there. Apparently, there weren't that many laughs in the original production; it was so shocking that there were more gasps than laughs. Now, people can really sort of get in there and enjoy the carnage. It's like we're doing a rock concert or something; after Kathleen's final aria, you almost expect everyone to hold up cigarette lighters.
ME: People seem to be delighted and surprised by how funny the play is. I don't think they walk in expecting how much fun we get to have before it all comes apart. The moment I love that still seems to be really shocking for the audience is when George walks in on Martha and Nick making out. It's nice to know that's still unsettling!
DH: The play is a knock-out piece, and I attribute most of that to Mr. Albee. I think that the dialogue is like going at a soft pear with a meat cleaver. I mean, it's just so powerful and so funny in and of itself.
TM: Was the response any different during the pre-Broadway run in Boston than it has been in New York?
DH: I actually did notice a slight difference. Boston was a bit kinder. I think the New York audiences were a little reticent in the beginning, like they weren't going to be won over easily. New Yorkers don't let you get away with the cheap stuff -- but when they love something, they adore it. I don't mean to say anything against Boston, but I find New Yorkers to be a bit more honest in their reaction to the play.
ME: It's harder to get them, but once you do, they're really with you.
TM: Like children?