Perhaps the most anticipated show of the season (if not many seasons), Theatre Exile’s production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF has opened at last. A career-long dream project of Joe Canuso, the acclaimed director waited years till he felt ready to tackle the blockbuster script, to procure the perfect cast, and, following a protracted two-year effort, to obtain the rights. Was it worth the wait? Every second of it.
The iconic three-act, three-hour marathon of marital warfare eviscerates the myth of the American family, revealing the drama and devastation behind the façade of our societal expectations of happiness and fulfillment. Inspired by the legendary weekend salons held in the Brooklyn Heights penthouse apartment of Wagner College English professor, poet, and experimental filmmaker Willard Maas and his wife Marie Menken (also an avant-garde filmmaker and artist), the couple’s alcohol-fueled battles were played out in front of the budding writers, artists, students, and colleagues they invited–among them, the young playwright Edward Albee, who used their explosive till-death-do-us-part relationship (they died a decade later, within four days of each other) as the basis for his 1962 award-winning play about the “truth and illusion” of the American dream.
Following a faculty party at the small New England college where her father serves as President, the already intoxicated Martha (Catharine Slusar) invites up-and-coming biology professor Nick (Jake Blouch) and his wife Honey (Emilie Krause) to join her and her husband George (Pearce Bunting)—a stalled forty-something associate professor of history–for drinks at their campus home. They soon embroil the young couple in the cruel games that define their marriage, manipulating, taunting, and humiliating each other and their guests with reckless abandon. What starts as hilarious bickering and braying in Act I turns increasingly ugly, desperate, and heart-rending by play’s end.
Under Canuso’s unflinching direction, his fearless cast fully inhabits the demanding roles, delivering all the scathing dark humor, gut-wrenching emotion, soul-baring psychology, and combative physicality required for Albee’s riveting exposé of intimate bonds gone bad. Bunting and Slusar are a perfect match as George and Martha, the modern American archetypes of volatile co-dependent spouses, inextricably bound in a love-hate relationship of epic proportions. Sparks fly between the actors as they embody, in tour-de-force performances, all the rage, disappointments, frustrations, and connections of their characters’ life together (and on a grander scale, of life in America; Albee didn’t name them George and Martha for nothing). She is relentlessly venomous and demeaning, he is passive-aggressive then violently reactive, blistering in his intellectual wit, and ever enabling of her outrageous behavior; she drinks too much, and he never hesitates to refill her glass.
Blouch and Krause provide superb counterparts to the alpha couple of American dysfunction, at first as the unwitting victims of their hosts’ “exercises” and then willing participants in the late night drunkenness, seductions, and abuse, revealing the secrets of their own less-than-ideal marriage. He is attractive, ambitious, snide, and competitive, but no equal to his elders, and, ultimately, doesn’t hold up against their dangerous machinations and bitterness. She is a vacuous “slim-hipped” woman whose fragile constitution can’t sustain the copious drinking or personal revelations of the night, registering (in the best performance of Krause’s young career) her discomfort, amusement, cluelessness, and anguish with ingenuous charm and masterful nuance.
Meghan Jones (set) creates a believable living room for George and Martha, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, walls hung with art, and a prominent fully stocked bar, and Thom Weaver (lighting) evokes the late-night ambience and shifting moods of the 2 AM visit. Katherine Fritz (costumes) clothes the characters in the tasteful garb that defined academics of the era—cardigans, suits, and pearls—and then in the skin-tight black dress of a wife bent on flagrant infidelity. Alice Yorke (props) provides the ammunition for George and Martha’s startling battles and pathetic self-medicating with liquor and cigarettes, and Mark Valenzuela (sound) maintains clarity throughout, from their uncontrolled outbursts to the quiet moments of “sad, sad, sad” introspection. It all adds up to one unsurpassed night of theater. [Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place] April 16-May 17, 2015; theatreexile.org.