By By Edward Albee
Directed by Doug O'Keefe
Delvena Theatre Company
Boston Center for the Arts Through September 21st, 1996

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

I remember the first time I encountered Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". I had heard of the play, of course. It was a Broadway hit, notorious for winning every prize a play could except the 1962-63 season Pulitzer. The Pulitzer's trustees vetoed its selection, and a pair of critics resigned from the committee in protest. I was at a friend's party when I noticed the published script of Albee's play on a table in my host's bathroom, and I picked it up intending only to leaf through. I had barely begun to read, leaning against the bookcase outside my host's bathroom, when the hairs on the back of my neck started to prickle. Midway through act one I went weak in the knees, and sank to the floor in a kind of awed astonishment. I sat right there while the party swirled on around me for however long it took to read to the end of act three-- in the grip of the ancient and terrible power of a dramatic poet to call up and exorcise demons. The words, the words! The sheer perfection of them!

However Albee came to write so well -- and it did cross my mind that he might have sold his soul for the ability -- his lines pass the ultimate test. If even one word is omitted or altered, the line loses its magic and becomes a limp and lesser thing. His protagonists, George and Martha, are creatures of word-magic. The sadomasochistic games they play together are verbal constructs. One of them will come out with a highly colored version of their shared history, casting her/himself as victim/hero and the spouse as villain/flop. The other will either buy into the story and build on it, or deny it and substitute a contradictory narrative. Each is determined to come out on top, to punish the other for their mutual dependency. At the center of their relationship is a particular shared and secret fantasy, which is destroyed at the climax of the play.

What George and Martha do in their marriage and to their son is extreme, but it is familiar, too. Albee implies that it is a peculiarly American sickness, the product of our society's competitive individualism.

Whatever it was in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that inspired the Delvena Theatre Company to produce the play, it can't have been the glorious Albee words. The version now on the stage of the Boston Center for the Arts' Leland Theatre is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" set in 1996, with lines cut, lines fluffed, lines updated or rewritten. The opening sequence, where Martha (Lynne Moulton) imitates Bette Davis and tries to remember what Warner Brothers movie the tag line "What a dump!" comes from, has been changed to a reference to Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, the stars of movie version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"-- throwing the audience out of the play and into confusion. Martha's lengthy ice cube monologue, for years a favorite show-off aria for aspiring divas --the one that opens the third act, where Martha evokes Daddy White Mouse and describes her "pointless infidelities" and spins out a fantasy in which she and George collect their copious tears in ice cube trays and use the frozen tears to chill their drinks --"clink"--"clink" --clink" ---- has been slashed to shreds, and several of its glittering "clinks" replaced by a reiterated "fat chance". So, is this production likely to succeed? Fat chance.

What happens when Albee's words are stripped of their vatic power is that George and Martha, who like their author are word-masters, dazzling in their cruel and manipulative combat, get cut down to ordinary size. George, especially, suffers when the actor doesn't trust the playwright's words, and ignores the rhythm of crescendo and diminuendo that is built into each scene. Robert Ayres is a pretty good actor, and he does some interesting things to try to vary what he seems to think of as George's endless and boring verbiage. Ayres bustles around the stage, "acting out"; he does character voices and imitations; and he shouts a lot -- even in places where Albee has written him the stage direction "(quietly)". Director Doug O'Keefe , by allowing Ayres to overplay the first half, loses both suspense --when will Martha finally succeed in "getting" George?-- and the turning point late in act two when George's strategy of passive aggression becomes all-out war. Ayres' unleashing himself so early on means that Moulton has to strain to dominate, and after a while the strain begins to tell on the audience. Moulton's best scenes are her quietest: her defeated collapse into tears and pleading, and her seduction of young Nick.

If words don't matter much, then the most interesting characters on stage turn out to be the young faculty couple Martha has invited over for a nightcap after the college's beginning of term party. Martha's father, the president of the college, told Martha that she and George ought to "be nice" to the couple, because newcomer Nick (Roy Souza is a rising star in science and sure to be an asset to the school if he stays on the faculty. But when hunky Nick and his inarticulate wife Honey (Nicole Jesson ) show up, Martha's idea of being nice includes flattering the young man by comparing his bright future to her husband's history of neurosis and failure, and encouraging his Honey to drink so much brandy that she passes out on the bathroom floor. Once Nick's wife is out of the way, Martha's flirtatious hints turn to outright invitation. She several times draws the Oedipal parallel, and assures Nick that bedding a woman old enough to be his mother can be a double pleasure when it humiliates a pretentious asshole like her husband.

Jesson and Souza take advantage of George and Martha's missing firepower to create a fascinating pair whose reaction to the combat going on in their hosts' house becomes the focus of the play. Jesson's Honey is indeed the "simp" George calls her. But her simplicity makes her the most sympathetic character on stage. One difference between 1960 and 1990 is that today we expect women to be grown-ups when they marry, and wives to be full-fledged people. Honey is very young, married to her childhood sweetheart at twenty because she was pregnant (a false alarm). Jesson plays her as a child-woman who has never had a chance to discover who she is and what she wants, and who has been a willing accomplice in her husband's plan to keep her passive and ignorant. By the end of this particular reading of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", there is hope that the torment Honey has been put through has been instructive, and that she will face what is going on in her own marriage and insist that her husband help her to grow up.

Nick has pedestrian lines. He is not only deprived of eloquence, but Albee also assigns the character the symbolic position of cold practical Science vs warm and messy Humanities. Probably the author didn't like him very much. But since this is a production that ignores Albee's preferences, Souza is able to play Nick from the character's own point of view, and the result is stunning. Nick becomes the central character, because he is alive, three-dimensional, responsive. Interest focuses on what effect the games George and Martha are putting Nick through will have on Nick and Honey's marriage. Once the older couple is finished with the youngsters, and sends them out the door at last, the emotional temperature drops rapidly to anticlimax.

The Leland space is cramped and its technical facilities are minimal. Within these limitations, the Delvena has done an excellent job with the physical production. The movement patterns are expressive, the acting areas varied, and the shabby livingroom seems to me to be more plausible as the dwelling of a pair of alcoholics living on a tight budget than was the luxurious Broadway original. I particularly admired the prominent display of William Gaddis' novel "The Recognitions". Just the sort of novel George would read and keep handy for reference!