Watching "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Broadway's Booth Theater, the word that comes to mind is "epic." At three hours and three acts with two intermissions, it's easy to see how the length alone would loan itself to such dramatic hyperbole. But it's also thanks to the heady content of the play and the immense presence of the mere four actors onstage.
The timing to bring this classic back to New York is pitch perfect. The show opened on its golden anniversary, 50 years to the day from its Broadway debut on Oct. 13, 1962. But do its more sinister themes of straight human behavior make sense in today's highly fantastical, escapist theater landscape? "It's a classic American play," director Pam MacKinnon tells us. "It has more laughs, but also more emotional punches, than anything out there."
For those uninitiated with playwright Edward Albee's most prolific offering, "Woolf" follows the story of an older married couple, George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton), that invites a younger husband (Madison Dirks) and wife (Carrie Coon) over for drinks. As the spirits flow, any pretense of formalities is abandoned and mind games become the entertainment of the night.
It's a "serious but incredibly funny" piece, says MacKinnon. Mockery and manipulation might feel out of place at the standard cocktail party (outside of NYC, at least) — but for these sadomasochistic masterminds, it would be like ordering ketchup on steak to suggest a keen evening of Scrabble.
These may not be your average hosts or houseguests, but even the cruelest duo is just running on the fumes of all-too-mundane motivations: They crave validation; they are terrified to be left alone.
These elements are poignantly demonstrated in this unbearably well-executed production. "It's a play about the price — but the necessity — of leading an authentic life," MacKinnon notes. "I think audiences go on a huge roller coaster ride — it's pretty light at the beginning, but I hope they're moved by the end."
If you go
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
Through Feb. 24
The Booth Theater
222 W. 45th St.