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.