Theater Review: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles)

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by Marc Wheeler on May 3, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


When Covid hit, I curled up one night, script in hand, poring over Edward Albee’s 60-year-old play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Perhaps the daily death toll had me in need of comfort, and I knew good ol’ George and Martha could hold me in a doting embrace. If you’re familiar with Woolf, you know that’s a joke. Truth is, I did snuggle up with the play, poring over its every word – but it’s by no means “comforting.” The language, though – oh, the language! – is exquisite. I wanted to wrap myself in Albee’s wit as if it were a warm, fuzzy blanket. For the uninitiated, the play is insane – gloriously so. I remember saying to myself: “They don’t write plays like this anymore.” And it’s true. Having just seen the latest iteration of Woolf at the Geffen Playhouse, I’ll say it again: they don’t make ‘em like they used to and – to paraphrase George – it’s a monkey-nippled shame. But it’s heaven to be reminded of what works.


In 1963, Woolf was selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The advisory board, however, found it much too scandalous – what with its swearing and sexual themes and all – and opted instead to have no winners that year for Drama. Honestly, could you ask for a better endorsement?! The Tony Awards tried … and awarded it Best Play. Three years later, a Mike Nichols-directed, black-and-white film adaptation – starring power couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – was lauded with multiple Academy Award nominations and wins. The work is about a dysfunctional married couple, George and Martha (Zachary Quinto and Calista Flockhart), who invite a younger couple, Nick and Honey (Graham Phillips and Aimee Carrero), into their home for a 2am soirée.


The play is three acts long and runs three hours. There’s also two 10-minute intermissions; my guess is that Albee, consummate host that he was, wanted to make sure his guests had breaks to drink. In Woolf, George and Martha do too, but they’re far less cordial about it. George is a history professor at a small New England college, and his wife is the daughter of the school’s president. In Martha’s eyes, George is a failure. In George’s eyes, Martha is the life force that daily sucks his soul from his rapidly aging body. They’re not a happy couple, but that’s what booze is for – oh, that eternal wellspring. Martha has invited Nick and Honey at the behest of her father. Nick is new to the college. A math professor. No, sorry – biology. Martha gets these details confused, what with the endless line of faculty of whom she’s continually expected to keep track. Martha met this adorable pair at the faculty party tonight. And with Nick being the strapping, high-achiever he appears to be, who knows what prospects he may bring to the college. Such entertaining is going to require endless chatter, and enough booze to kill an elephant. Let the games begin.


Woolf is a howler. Linguistic bloodsport. An uproarious play where the thin veil of decorum has been shattered and everyone is allowed to behave like beasts. Insults are slung like spaghetti and cake in a no-holds-barred food fight. It’s messy. But it’s sticks and stones that break bones, not words. Words, harmless little things. Sure, they can sting – but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Why, then, do characters continue to shrink as the play wears on?


The work is exhausting – in all the best of ways. On a scale of 1 to 10, it starts at about an 8 in intensity, and works its way up from there. That’s part of Gordon Greenberg’s direction, sure. But it’s also inherent in Albee’s writing. The punches start early. The goal, I believe, is to push the limits of endurance born from the fear and pain of emptiness. The unrelenting nature of this all-night bender ensures that lives can never return to normal. It’s a deep dive into cruelty and survival. If that sounds miserable, it’s anything but. It’s thrilling. The audience is waiting to discover what new low to which they’ll descend. What would happen if we, one night, removed our filters? It’s a terrifying prospect, sure. But it’s also freeing. For when in your life were you ever allowed to be that candid, and have both parties still walk away? It’s morbidly cathartic.


When I heard that Quinto and Flockhart were playing George and Martha in this production, my first response was surprise. They seemed so young and polished. But honestly, they’re both within a 5-year range of Albee’s stated ages for his characters. George is 46, Martha is cougar-y 52. Yes, George married older – and richer, which seems to be a theme for the men in this play. As are their spines. Albee wrote cucks well. Betas, with alphas for contrast. Or, as the liquor flows, betas posing as alphas. For what’s real and what’s illusion, that’s all part of the fun and games: games like George’s called “Get the Guests” – sounds fun, right? It’s not. Not when themes are about living up to one’s potential, or cowardice, or children. That last one draws the most venom.


As George, Quinto (Star Trek, The Boys in the Band) excels in the role. He finds the moments to sulk, the moments to sting. He’s a great steward of Albee’s language, and delivers it deliciously. I’m of mixed opinion, however, on Flockhart’s Martha. In her lovely blonde ‘do, the star of Ally McBeal makes for a beguiling, ‘60s housewife. When she’s not ripping you to shreds, she’s actually quite a stunning flirt. But I often felt like she was performing, not embodying, the role. Eventually, I warmed up to her performance. Then again, did I mention the intermissions? (Pro-tip rumor: doubles are only $1 extra!)


As Nick, the fly in Martha’s web, Phillips (Riverdale) has all the right outward appearances. Blonde. Sturdy. He’s also sharp, guarded, and protective; When push comes to shove, he isn’t afraid to hold his hosts accountable. And yet, he stays with them. Perhaps he wants to make a good first impression on his boss’s daughter. Or perhaps there’s something about the turmoil that draws him in – something he finds relatable, necessary even.


For me, the star of the show is Carrero (She-Ra) as Nick’s docile arm-candy, Honey. When the drinks begin to flow, the booze gets the best of her slight stature and naïveté. Her bright eyes glaze over. Her decorum turns to slush. Carrero steals every moment she’s onstage, even when everyone around her is talking. Her face is always on, if fading. Then she’ll pipe up and get a laugh. She manages to stick out without pulling focus. While Carrero might be best known for her voice-over work, this performance demands she be seen – on stage and screen. Seriously, what a treat to watch.


Wilson Chin’s set design – wonderfully lit by Elizabeth Harper – is ornate and muted. In the living room of George and Martha’s on-campus home, the bookshelves are full and ceiling-high. The set has all the hallmarks of well-to-doers. They may be well-read, but there’s a stuffy claustrophobia in paradise, supporting the players’ caged predicament. Alejo Vietti’s costumes are smart and fashionable. They’re indicative of the times, but there’s a compelling whiff of modernism to them.


Major kudos to sound designer Lindsay Jones. When Martha is spitefully encouraged by George to select music for dancing, a song came on that, if it weren’t for theater etiquette, I’d have Shazam’d on the spot. Turns out its an original work by Jones called “Les Orages Arrivent.” It’s appropriately inappropriate, sultry and seductive. I’m sure Albee, whose original script encourages a “jazzy slow pop tune,” would be tickled by it.


If anything, it was a delight to hear actors bite into a masterful script and bring it to life. It’s been awhile since I’ve sat in a show and appreciated the language as much as I have here. Nowadays, theaters feel the need to feed us veggies in order to appear socially relevant. But it’s nice just to just have fun, you know? Enjoy some carefully crafted chaos for a while.


photos by Jeff Lorch

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat and Sun at 1 & 7
ends on May 22, 2022 EXTENDED to May 29, 2022
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pauline May 12, 2022 at 11:45 am

wait–doubles are only $1 extra?!! NOW you tell me?! lol


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