At the Booth Theater on 45th Street, the good people of Steppenwolf are attempting something admirable. With fifty pounds of books, fifty quarts of prop booze, and over three hours of surly wordplay, they are doing their best to breathe life into hoary old Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And if critical praise be your barometer, they have succeeded marvelously.
Tracy Letts gives us an invigorated George—not a milquetoast who chooses this evening to lash out, but a master of ceremonies with menace to match his wife. And Amy Morton's Martha is low-key, more melancholy than the usual oversexed hyena. This Martha doesn't bray. She smirks.
In Chicago, D.C. and now New York, Steppenwolf's production has won high praise for reversing the balance of power in theater's most famous co-dependent relationship. Show us Martha's vulnerability, and we understand her cruelty. Show us a George who fights back, and he'll win our sympathy, rather than just pity. Like a veggie BLT, Pam MacKinnon's Woolf is ham-free.
But from the first minutes of Act I last night, this lavish new Woolf failed to grab me. Over the very long three hours that followed, my interest rose and flagged, and by the time I slouched out of the theater, I was forced to wonder if a subtle Woolf was too subtle for me. By tamping down the bray, MacKinnon lets Albee's language shine through. But without venom, George and Martha's searing monologues are just long speeches. The famous couple is fighting with dulled swords, landing blow after blow without drawing blood.
This is a crippling problem. As much as I love this play, there are parts of it that don't hold up under scrutiny. The most famous example of this, of course, is the Big Reveal—the famous imaginary son. Exorcising the son is George's last, final blow—his masterstroke, the attack that he has always held off on until now. With all that weight placed on it, there's no way this device could live up to the audience's expectations, and that's okay—so long as it comes at the end of a truly vicious, exhausting evening. There's no way to top what's come before, and it's best not to try. But this production lays on the "Our son" stuff thick from the start, telegraphing a mile away that Something Big Is Coming, and making it that much more of a disappointment when it doesn't arrive.
Other peculiarities of this play—the lengthy monologues, the repetitive back and forth, even some of the jokes—sag. I felt like I was being shown the play in slow motion, as a way of highlighting Albee's artistry, and all I could see were the cracks. The film runs 131 minutes; this production, minus intermissions, runs 165. George and Martha's long night's journey into day is exhausting enough without letting it drag on.
But all of these problems would have been solved, I think, if Amy Morton had been allowed to let loose. Even at the end of the play, when George goads her into getting angry for the final battle—"I'm going to knock you around and I want you up for it!"—she seems more tired than angry. Taking a quiet approach to the campus witch is admirable, and this production succeeds in making Martha's inner sadness more real than it ever has been before. But that comes at the expense of her cruelty, and that cruelty is one half of the engine that drives this play. Without it, Martha is flat, George is a bully, and the games they are playing seem like nothing more than games—tired, tedious and unable to hurt.
Other critics—nearly all of them, in fact—found Morton's performance nuanced and refreshing, and felt that Martha amplifies her rage by keeping it buried. I didn't see it. My disagreement may have something to do with watching the movie too much as a kid. I like a mean Martha; I like a sly George. But this is also a necessity of dramatic construction. If the play starts with George in control and Martha trying desperately to fight back, then where does it have to go?
Because YouTube is a goddamned miracle, I was able to find not just clips of Dick and Liz, but also Uta and Arthur and Tracy and Amy, all doing the same scene. Of course, it's unfair to compare the film to these two Broadway recordings, since the lack of an audience means the energy levels are in the basement. And it's wrong to judge an entire film or movie by one clip. What wears well for two minutes might get tedious over three hours.
For the last one, skip to 2:34 for the right bit. Or just watch the whole thing. It's your life, man.
There are two exchanges I want to look at closer. The first:
Martha: I actually fell for him. It! That! There!
George: Martha's a romantic at heart.
Martha: That I am.
"That I am"—an actress can do a lot with that line. Hagen screeches it, defiant. Taylor murmurs it quiet, honest. Morton responds evenly—not exposing herself, not giving anything away. No take is wrong, but I like Taylor's—I think it does a lot for the scene's rhythm.
A minute later, Martha upbraids George for smashing a bottle.
"I hope that was an empty bottle. You can't afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary! Not on an associate professor's salary!"
(I must have been sitting in front of an academic at the play last night, because this line made her gasp. For her, "associate professor" was the meanest dig in the whole play.)
Unfortunately, the clip of the Steppenwolf production doesn't run that far, but Morton delivered the line like it was a joke. Not a mean joke, just a joke. Taylor uses the broken bottle as a chance to dig the knife in deeper, while Hagen—and I really love this—howls, "I hope that was an empty bottle," because she cares about that liquor.
Hagen and Taylor don't worry too much about making Martha likeable. She's sexy, powerful and cruel—and I'll take that over sympathetic any day. After watching those clips several times, though, before switching to the Steppenwolf performance, its low-key nature was a breath of fresh air. I can see why someone who had seen a lot of bad Woolfs, or was tired of the film's hamtastic nature, could ease into this quieter production and find themselves enjoying it like new. But for me, I'll take the ham.
What do you think? I'm dying to hear more opinions on this show, so whether you've seen the Broadway production or you haven't, comment or tweet at me. Everybody else seems to have loved it, and I'd like to hear why I'm wrong.
I was emotionally flatlined for nearly all of this play's three hours—neither engaged or bored, neither happy nor sad—but there was one moment that moved the needle. When Tracy Letts Got the Guests, and lit into Carrie Coon's Honey, the air went out of the theater.
Honey is blind drunk—and my, does Coon play a spectacular drunk—when George goes into his speech about her hysterical pregnancy. It takes her a while to realize he's talking about her, but panics slowly as she realizes the truth. Coon fucking nails this—she was amazing throughout—but it wasn't just her. This is the only moment in the play when the cruelty of George and Martha really hits home. What he does to that girl is criminal. We know why he does it, we know it's coming, we watch it happen like a car wreck we can't stop. And that it still managed to turn the audience's stomach makes it one of those moments of pure, beautiful theater that are the reason we keep going to see these silly plays.
In three hours of Virginia Woolf, I found about three minutes of blinding, brilliant theatricality. That's not too bad. Most shows don't offer three seconds.