WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Geffen Playhouse
As someone who’s been obsessed with both creating and appreciating theatre for well over seven decades, as well as reviewing plays for the past 35 years, there are many worthy classics that are still “work” for me to sit through yet again. Still, there are about four or five enduring masterworks I could watch repeatedly over and over, including Equus, The House of Blue Leaves, The Shadow Box, the musicals Hair and Chicago, and of course anything and everything written by Tennessee Williams.
At the top of the list would also surely be the groundbreaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which to me is a close second to A Streetcar Named Desire as the best play of the 20th Century. Now in a slickly produced and lovingly mounted revival at the Geffen Playhouse, I am still as raptured by Edward Albee’s poetic theatrical evisceration of the American Dream as completely as I was back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and I learned to sidestep them gingerly.
See, I was maybe 15 or 16 when I saw my heroine and mentor Uta Hagen originate Martha in Virginia Woolf? on Broadway in the early 60s and, without a doubt, it was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life as a young actor. After a childhood spent thinking being cute and loud for a living in musical theatre and crying daily on an early “Golden Age” TV soap opera was what life was all about, that one evening in a darkened historic Broadway house made that click happen—you know, that click that makes one realize what an honor it is to be an artist.
Over the past years I have seen many notable people play Martha’s initially passive-aggressive punching bag of a husband, including my favorite George, Bill Irwin, as well as Arthur Hill in the original, John Lithgow, Sheppard Strudwick, and Jonathan Pryce opposite Hagen at age 80 as she reprised her iconic role at a benefit reading at the Ahmanson nearly 40 years after the first spoke Martha’s infamous opening line, “What a dump."
When I myself played Nick opposite a charitably unnamed famous but dissipated star who should have been prosecuted for her destruction of an almost indestructible role—including opening night in front of a sold out audience entering the stage and, after a long sustained applause, looking around the stage and loudly but oddly still in character braying, “LINE!”—I wanted badly to one day play George, an opportunity that sadly has at age 384 now long passed me by.
I am comforted by this missed opportunity by seeing the absolutely most impressive George I have ever had the privilege to observe. Without a doubt, the singular most memorable thing about the Geffen’s impressively reverent and brilliantly designed revival of a Virginia Woolf? is the jaw-dropping performance of Zachary Quinto, who immediately proves Dr. Spock has some world-class chops guaranteed in the future to make his career live well and prosper.
Martha might in Albee’s once-shocking tale traditionally overpower her world-weary and continuously abused husband of 23 years but not in this mounting by any means. Without fading into the woodwork and dusty bookcases on Wilson Chin’s detailed two-story set, Quinto simply commands the stage at every turn without really trying. He surely could have overshadowed many of the celebrated previous post-Uta Marthas I’ve seen, including Glenda Jackson, Ruth Warrick, Kathleen Turner, Rita Gam, and especially the remarkable Bette Ford at Seattle Rep in the early 1970s.
Quinto is mesmerizing despite being far too young at age 44 to play George, especially working opposite an actress the right age who seems to be desperately trying to play younger rather than really connect with the actor. Late in Act Three when George shouts, “No! No! I’m running the show now!”, Quinto didn’t need to convince me.
Whether it be the actor’s choice or the visionary inspiration of director Gordon Greenberg (or hopefully a collaboration of both), I saw something in Quinto’s performance I’ve never seen before, something incredibly unique: there’s an inner longing and occasionally a little suspicious though delightful campiness in his poor George, as though the guy might have spent some brief happier times sneaking a few of his more hunky ambitious male students into the local Motel 6 for a little bartered upgrading of their final grade, partially just to spite Martha and her demonic father who has also contributed to George’s lifelong humiliation. It gives a whole new meaning to his “I have no sense of humor—I have a heightened sense of the ridiculous.”
And when Quinto’s George offhandedly admires Nick’s physique, there’s something a lot more loaded in the relationship of the play’s quartet of sparing partners, particularly evident when he occasionally tries to place a hand on his good looking young rival’s shoulder or back, something that obviously makes Graham Phillips’ Nick recoil in disgust—a clue that the director was in on or even generated this new interpretation.
Phillips is the perfect Nick, so Ivy League that he could have worn a football jersey and laurel leaves in his hair. He handles the play’s least flashy role beautifully, though I did miss a bit of the turmoil Nick suffers in his descent from stud to houseboy. When Martha screams repeatedly for him to “Answer the door, houseboy!” after his disappointing performance humping the hostess on the kitchen floor, the torturous dilemma Nick faces as he decides to swallow his pride and reluctantly start taking orders could be communicated with a clearer sense of sickening defeat.
As his mouse of a wifey, Aimee Carrero is this revival’s other great revelation. The “slim-hipped,” label-peeling Honey is a flashy and incredibly quirky role, one coveted by any young actress wanting to stretch herself to the limits and almost be guaranteed to garner a nomination somewhere for her performance. Unlike the wonderful Sandy Dennis in her Oscar-winning film performance, however, Carrero’s Honey is fascinatingly underplayed, making her occasional burst of inappropriate one-liners often so quiet and introspective you have to work hard to hear what she said—something I didn’t mind doing for a second. There’s a palpable power in her understatement, one many theatre actors will understand without further explanation.
Now, before I say too much about Calista Flockhart as Martha, the female actor’s equivalent to having the cajones to tackle playing Hamlet, let me say I’ve seen her onstage on three occasions in her pre-Ally McBeal days and she was spectacular. As Albee’s most complex anti-heroine, she is either grossly miscast or unwilling to go where Martha needs to go. If her character choices are Greenberg’s, I would be most surprised, since it instead feels more as though this is yet again an aging celebrity trying to hold onto the glamour that once was and possibly fighting her director to maintain it at every step along the way.
If her wig possibly worn by Doris Day in Midnight Lace and exaggerated Cagney-like “little person” body language was indeed part of Greenberg’s vision, he made a terrible mistake; with her bouncy, never getting disheveled hair and costuming that makes her seem as though she’s prepping for a revival of The Donna Reed Show, Flockhart is doing a perky, way too sunny one-man show here, never truly connecting with any of her three costars—a glaring flaw that Quinto works through smoothly. Then again, George does say that in his mind, his shrew of a wife is buried in cement up to her neck, so maybe this fine internal actor is inventive enough to use that.
Flockhart could be given the benefit of the doubt this was all a character choice until the top of the shattering anti-utopian Act Three, when the abandon-ed Martha’s heartwrenching, rambling monologue, meant to be shared with no one beyond her living room, is played directly out to the audience as if Flockhart is appearing in a one-night benefit reading of Love Letters. If I had any thought her performance as Martha in any way germinated from an intentional choice, the third act killed it. There’s obviously nothing beyond the fourth wall of George and Martha’s home except us.
Albee’s lyrical but measured dialogue is as brilliant as ever but it’s also full of terrible traps, as often his characters all sport the same hesitations, repetitions, even humor. It takes truly gifted actors to make it work but here, the last moving exchange between Flockhart and Quinto is painfully clumsy since she doesn’t appear to understand the rhythms or timing of the couple’s melancholy, distracted “Yes” and “No” exchange.
This is still a definitive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? despite any such druthers, offering one rich, completely dynamic performance I’m thrilled to have seen before I croak. I never got to see Laurette Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield or Lee J. Cobb’s Willie Loman, but hey: I got to see Zachary Quinto’s star turn as George and, as badly cast (or directed) as his costar in this production might have been, without intentionally doing so, he “better, best, bested” her effortlessly.
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