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Albee classic still stings in restrained revival.


Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(LONGACRE; 1,095 SEATS; $91.25 TOP)

NEW YORK An Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Daryl Roth, Terry Allen Kramer, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, James L. Nederlander, Nick Simunek presentation of a play in three acts by Edward Albee. Directed by Anthony Page. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Mark Bennett; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Susie Cordon. Opened March 20, 2005. Reviewed March 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.
Martha  Kathleen Turner
George  Bill Irwin
Honey   Mireille Enos
Nick    David Harbour

More than 40 years after it was first seen and almost three decades since its last Broadway revival, Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" remains a searing study of a marriage based on mutual flagellation, photographed in the form of a war plan that charts insidious subversive tactics, messy guerrilla assaults and deadly frontal attacks before registering the aching hollowness of defeat and surrender. If Anthony Page's impeccably classy staging has a somewhat muted quality that allows the drama to fire on all cylinders only intermittently, the stunning cruelty and compassion of the writing still stand tall.

Of course, the main strength in any production of Albee's best-known play lies in the casting of George and Martha, the stymied college professor and his braying, belittling wife, whose savage games belie their desperate interdependency. While both Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner give off frequent flashes of incisive wit and naked emotional need camouflaged by hardened indifference, neither has a consistent grip on their character.

From "Body Heat" through "War of the Roses," Turner's screen career would appear to be a rehearsal for Martha. Her husky, lived-in voice brings haunted poignancy to Martha's submission when George ruthlessly tips the scales in the couple's fragile balance of truth and illusion. While she arguably undersells Martha's obscenity, Turner saunters through the role's gin-soaked, blowzy flirtatiousness and wry disgust with ease.

But much of her perf is marked by a nagging shortage of authority or, more to the point, ferocity. Martha's festering rancor toward her husband for his failure to make a mark--remaining "in the history department as opposed to being the history department," despite having a father-in-law who's faculty president--seems only partially tapped by Turner.

A far less obvious casting stroke, Irwin's buttoned-up physicality feeds an interesting take on George, initially as gray and spent as his cardigan vest and tweedy trousers. He conveys the man's resilient, bristling intellect, but the actor's arch detachment softens both the bruising George has had to endure and the vengeful punishment he ladles out. It's unsurprising, given Irwin's background as a comic and mime, that his perf is twitchy, irritable and even slightly fey rather than simmering with sustained, suppressed rage, as the part is often played. His George comes to life in fidgety fits and starts, too rarely pouncing like the wounded animal he is.

Both leads register moments of blistering power, but the overriding quietness of the approach is not always satisfying. So much restraint in a long night that famously navigates through games of humiliate-the-host, hump-the-hostess and get-the-guest before daggers are fully drawn ultimately softens the drama's emotional punch.

As much as the lobbing of verbal grenades between husband and wife, the play is about their exhibition of the marital minefield before the captive audience of Nick and Honey, an ambitious, cocky young newcomer to the biology department and his dim bulb of a wife. The interaction between the two couples, particularly between George and Nick, adds immeasurably to the play's texture in terms of the friction and distrust between middle age and youth, resentful failure and aggressive promise. George sees Nick as the bland, blond superman threat, one of the ants that will take over the world.

David Harbour and Mireille Enos are every bit a match for Irwin and Turner and perhaps have a firmer handle on their characters. Harbour's squarely handsome looks are a neat period fit for a play set in 1960. He conveys the smooth self-possession of a former athlete who sees himself as a foregone winner but is unprepared to go up against a man who exercises his wits the way other people sharpen knives.

Enos seems at first to have pushed Honey too far toward borderline simple-mindedness. But as she hits the brandy bottle with increasing abandon, the actress finds the tenderly exposed heart of unsavvy Honey, making the emotional devastation wreaked by George on the young couple even more harrowing. While the diseased contract between George and Martha clearly remains intact, the bond between Nick and Honey has been brutally unmasked as fraudulent by play's end.

A seasoned director of Albee's plays, Page orchestrates the proceedings with subtlety and clarity, but allows too much slackness to creep into the three-act, three-hour staging, which unfolds entirely within designer John Lee Beatty's dusty, wood-paneled living room.

Albee's revised text reflects some questionable decisions, jettisoning the act-two exchange in which George rehearses his coup de grace with Honey, yet retaining Martha's meandering monologue at the start of act three, here one of Turner's weaker moments.

As sharp and brilliantly structured as the writing is, the uneven electricity of this production makes one appreciate even more the intelligent economies of Ernest Lehman's script for Mike Nichols' 1966 film.
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Title Annotation:Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Author:Rooney, David
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Mar 28, 2005
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